Fates can change quickly in sports. The fates of two New England cities with long hockey histories became intertwined this week, with one winner and one loser.
Two weeks ago, people in Springfield, Massachusetts were bemoaning the loss of the city’s American Hockey League team to Tucson, Az. and the likely end of almost 80 years of professional hockey in western Massachusetts.
" I think people really thought we were losing hockey, but now it seems we've been able to pull a rabbit out of our hat," said Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno.
He learned suddenly at mid-week that a group of local investors had quietly negotiated a tentative deal to buy another AHL team, the Portland ( Maine) Pirates, and move that franchise to Springfield.
" The good news is it looks like we are going to have professional hockey this upcoming season," said Sarno.
The identities of the investors, who are being hailed for saving hockey in Springfield, will remain secret for now, according to Frank Fitzgerald, the attorney for the group.
" Until we complete the definitive agreement and the organizational structure for the group it would be inappropriate to identify the group," said Fitzgerald in an interview. He said local investors are still being lined up and funds will be raised " to ensure that professional hockey remains in Springfield."
The AHL Board of Governors, which meets on May 10th in Springfield, has to approve the deal to sell the Pirates and move the franchise to Springfield. The Pirates’ NHL parent, the Florida Panthers, must agree to assign players to the new Springfield team. A lease has to be negotiated with the MassMutual Convention Center, where the new team would play its home games.
Two days after the Springfield Falcons finished their season on April 17, the Arizona Coyotes announced a deal to purchase the team and move it to Tucson. The Falcons were last in the league in attendance this season, and the move west was part of a recent trend that also claimed AHL teams from Worcester, Manchester, and Glens Falls.
Springfield’s chief economic development official, Kevin Kennedy, said the city played only a passive role in the behind-the-scenes effort to keep professional hockey.
"The city has to basically roll out the red carpet. We don't have any real say in what goes on, but we can help quite a bit with the perception," said Kennedy.
Even with the poor attendance, the Falcons were credited with providing jobs for vendors and bringing extra business to downtown bars and restaurants for 40 home games last season.
"Sometimes bad things give way to other opportunities," said Kennedy. " We can't control what is happening with franchises in any of the ( sports) leagues. We can only react to what is put in front of us."
Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling is angry and said he was blindsided by the news the Pirates were being sold and shipped out of town. Taxpayers spent $34 million in 2013 to renovate the arena where the Pirates played and now the team is leaving without warning.
" It is very frustrating," said Strimling.
Portland has had an AHL team since 1977.