PORTLAND, ME – A new day of professional hockey is dawning in Portland, Maine, where the Maine Mariners are preparing for their first ever ECHL season at Cross Insurance Arena. Opening Night against the Adirondack Thunder will take place on Saturday, October 13, 2018.
However, it was a long—and heartbreaking—road to get here. What seemed like a sudden sale of the former American Hockey League Portland Pirates in May 2016 absolutely stunned the city, fans, and corporate community surrounding the team.
But what has not been well-documented about that difficult loss is the fact that was an equally long and heartbreaking decision-making process Ron Cain, former majority owner of the Pirates from 2014-16. From a business standpoint, he didn’t see any other option at the time but to sell the Pirates.
“The decision was pretty straight forward. We had lost money for years, and although the Pirates had made progress, we just could not see how the Pirates could turn the corner to break even,” says Cain. “Travel expenses increased substantially due to the league’s expansion, affiliation fees increased with no hope of reduction, and ticket sales just could not reach the threshold needed to sustain an independent owner. In my mind, there simply was no way to make the AHL model a viable model in Portland.”
“If you really look at how many National Hockey League teams owned their AHL franchise seven years ago compared to today, the whole business of hockey has evolved on that front. Independent ownership at the American league level is just not as common as it used to be,” confirms Brad Church, former COO of the Pirates who Cain brought in to lead the team in 2014. “Owners like Tom Ebright, who brought the Pirates to Portland for the first several years and was really able to make it work—you just don’t see that anymore.”
In fact, Cain had been trying to avoid having to make that business decision for months before it even happened. “We tried very hard to keep the AHL team in Portland by selling to a buyer that would keep the team in the city, but concessions needed to be made by all involved,” Cain explains. “After months of meetings and conversations with all the invested parties, we could not get the concessions needed to keep the team in Portland. We ran out of time, and I had to make the decision to sell to an outside buyer that would move the team to another market.”
From an emotional standpoint, it was one of the “toughest” decisions Cain has ever had to make. “In my mind I failed the community. A lot of people lost their jobs, local businesses were impacted, and the fans were left without a team,” says Cain. “I loved being involved with the team, the Portland community, and our fans, and it was very emotional to move away from that.”
“That part was tough for me, too, especially to tell what was going on to our young, hard working staff that really put their heart and soul into it all,” says Church, a former professional hockey player who spent the majority of six seasons with the Pirates from 1996-2002. “But I think Ron, as an owner, treated everybody fairly. We were very transparent with everyone involved, and those who needed to know at the time were addressed.
“It was an abrupt announcement, but the way it was portrayed in the media would not be accurate, with some of the local comments to the tune of we were blindsighted and so on,” Church continues. “I think I can speak for Ron and say that there was certainly valiant effort to make it work, but unfortunately it just didn’t. We can all look in the mirror knowing we dug in and did our best.”
Shortly after the sale of the Pirates, Church teamed up with Godfrey Wood, who joined Ebright in introducing the Pirates to southern Maine in 1993. That’s when the campaign to bring an expansion ECHL franchise to Portland began. “We put together a business plan according to some of the costs that most teams were incurring,” says Church. “I had been a head coach and director of hockey operations in the ECHL before, so I was familiar with the operations of the team—how the roster is built, how the teams travel, different costs, scheduling—so I felt pretty comfortable with the plan we put together.”
Church and Wood met with a handful of prospective owners, yet timing was not on their side to bring hockey back for 2016-17. “It was tough because we were up against a deadline, and so it was really just a matter of timing and finding the right folks, which didn’t happen for us,” Church explains. “The ECHL grants more freedom to integrate players into the community, so I thought it was a little disappointing at the time that Portland and southern Maine wasn’t going to have that for a couple more years.
“But more disappointing for me was about what that flagship Pirates team meant to the business community in downtown Portland—the restaurants, hotels, bus companies, our medical doctors and their staff we created opportunities for,” Church continues. “And the youth hockey footprint is strong here in Southern Maine, so it was unfortunate those kids didn’t have a flagship team to go cheer on and have those pro players at their youth practices.”
Now that professional hockey has returned to Portland, why should all of this still matter? The ECHL’s Maine Mariners can learn a lot from the experiences of their predecessors as they embark on their inaugural season.
“I think some of their successes would come with maybe some of the successes that the Pirates had in the early years,” says Church. “Plus, they have an opportunity to re-enter a strong hockey market. Youth hockey numbers are up, so there are a lot of kids enjoying the sport. And the Bruins are good, so people in New England are watching. The sport of hockey itself is strong.
“But I think the one thing they really need to focus on is the connection with the community. People need to know who these players are and where they came from,” continues Church. “And the players need to be committed to getting into schools, hospitals, and charitable situations around southern Maine. If there’s a connection between the two—community and team—it will drive more interest, and interest will drive people into the building.”
Cain fully agrees with Church, adding that from an owner’s perspective, additional considerations must be taken to preserve Portland’s hockey market. “The Mariners have to be careful of ticket prices and not outpricing beyond what the market can support,” says Cain. “Having a bunch of different packages for kids, charitable organizations, group sales, and more will also help drive people into the building to see the product and hopefully gain some lifelong fans.”
The delicate balance between having a strong community presence and not breaking the budget is something Cain struggled with during his time at the helm of the Pirates. “Again, with the AHL model, you had fixed costs, like the affiliation fee, that drove up the pressure on ticket prices,” explains Cain. “With the ECHL, they may not have as many of those pressure points from a costing standpoint. Both leagues, though, have seen a shift in the way the they’ve been able to operate over the last five to eight years, as we’ve seen.”
Though the Mariners are currently affiliated with the National Hockey League’s New York Rangers and AHL’s Hartford Wolfpack, Church and Cain also agree that the new franchise can’t rely on those relationships alone to bolster attendance. The Pirates were affiliated with the Arizona Coyotes and Florida Panthers in their last two seasons, respectively, and the team needed to average at least 4,000 fans per game to sustain a viable operation. During their final 2015-16 season, the Pirates averaged 3,363 nightly.
“I think at the end of the day, does the affiliate have an impact on your average attendance? No,” says Church. “There’s a core group of fans in every city that enjoys seeing a young player come in, contribute for a year or two, then move on.
“How many local fans are truly impacted on a nightly basis because the affiliate may be in a different time zone? Other than the perception of it,” Church continues. “If the Pirates had been affiliated with the Boston Bruins, would it have helped us? Absolutely, but for me, that’s more of a marketing thing. To have that spoked ‘B’ on your pocket schedules is a lot different than having a Coyote or Panther, so it depends on how you look at it.”
“Affiliations could be a boost for the marketing side or even PR side, but not necessarily the product on the ice,” says Cain. “It’s a pretty competitive league all around.”
But according to Church, the biggest challenge the Mariners could face may simply be keeping up with the evolution of the hockey industry. “We could talk for hours about how this whole business has evolved because of the evolution of the NHL itself and the way they have to build their teams through the draft and development,” says Church. “When I played, I got drafted by Washington and wound up here in Portland, and we’d see the GM maybe once a year—and that’s only because Washington was playing Boston the next afternoon. It’s different now with the way the sport of hockey itself has evolved, and I think that everything else around it is moving with it.”
While Church and Cain will not be in attendance at Mariners’ Opening Night, both plan on supporting the new ECHL organization—this season and for seasons to come. “We both feel excited about this new pro team coming into town, and we wish them all nothing but the best,” says Church. “I think it’s a great thing for the community and southern Maine, and I’m excited for everybody involved.”
Currently, Church is focused on raising his four children and coaching youth hockey, while Cain continues his endeavors with Legacy Holding Company. Both, however, would consider returning to professional hockey in the future.
“Do I miss being involved in the pro game? Yeah, absolutely, but I’m a family first guy, and this is where I need to be,” says Church. “But would I welcome an opportunity to get reinvolved? Absolutely—when the time is right.”
“Brad and I were passionate about the community and what we thought the team could do, both on and off the ice. Getting involved originally was not just for the sport, but what we could do through it,” says Cain. “Hockey is still a passion of mine, and if the opportunity ever presented itself from a business perspective—whatever that would look like—I would welcome the opportunity. I miss being involved.”