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Portland hockey fans blindsided by AHL Pirates’ sudden relocation

Portland, Maine, has only had two seasons without an AHL franchise since 1977. 

The last time was the 2013-14 season, when the Pirates moved over to Lewiston during a protracted lease dispute with the city. The man who helped mend those feelings and bring the team back was businessman Ron Cain, who became the team’s majority owner and negotiated a five-year lease with Portland.

He’s also the guy who has deprived the city of an AHL for next season, and who knows for how long after that.

Cain sold the Pirates, the Florida Panthers’ AHL affiliate, to investors in Springfield, Mass., as a replacement for the Springfield Falcons, the Coyotes’ affiliate that will be moving out west next season. The sale is pending AHL approval. 

The city was blindsided by the news this week. Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling was told first by a reporter. And then there was this scene, via the Portland Press Herald:

Scott Prue of Biddeford was in the Pirates’ office at 4 p.m. to pick up a jersey won by his son in a raffle and to renew three season tickets. Ben Locke, director of ticket operations, was helping Prue with the transaction when an associate called Locke to a back room.

“Two minutes later, he came back and said he was sorry, but apparently the team was moving to Springfield and that I had to leave the office,” Prue said. “As I was leaving, I had to unlock the front door because they had locked it.”

Locke “looked teary-eyed and upset,” Prue said. “It’s very disappointing. I’m completely shocked. It seemed like the Pirates staff was shocked as well. I don’t think any of them knew, either.”

Meanwhile, goalie Mike McKenna told the Portland Press-Herald: “That’s a complete shock… Just the worst news I’ve ever gotten in my life.”

Season tickets will be refunded. The Panthers issued the following statement:

"I was informed by Portland CEO Ron Cain today that he has signed a letter of intent to sell the Pirates pending league approval," Florida Panthers Executive Chairman Peter Luukko said. "We will be in contact with the American Hockey League regarding the sale process. In the meantime, Florida will begin exploring all our options to put our players in the very best developmental situation. We have enjoyed the city of Portland, the venue and the incredible fan support.”

There’s a lot that stinks here, above and beyond Cain dropping this news like a Drake album on iTunes.

There was the five-year lease which is being broken, at a cost of up to $100,000 for the team. That might seem like a good amount of money, but consider that taxpayers laid out $34 million in renovations of the Pirates’ arena in 2013.

Three years later, the team’s out, because Cain wanted to sell while AHL franchise values were high.

Granted, the Pirates’ attendance wasn’t stellar, finishing 30th in 2014-15 and 29th last season. But the city is expected to get another hockey team at some point, either in the AHL or the ECHL.

And hopefully they’re the Pirates, so the legacy of a great hockey town can continue. 

-- 

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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