The Cumberland County Civic Center is easily the ugliest building in Portland, Maine. Along with the rest of the drab corridor of Spring Street that it sits on, this unfriendly-looking slab of concrete and glass is a prototypically mind-numbing example of late-century urban utilitarianism. It seemed all the more unappealing on the first bone-chillingly cold day of the year, December 18, 2011, when I ambled under its eaves. I was on my way to see the local American Hockey League franchise, the Portland Pirates, compete against the Eastern Conference leaders, the St. John’s Ice Caps.
What is the Eastern Conference, and how does one get to be its leader? What, exactly is the AHL’s relation to the NHL? Where is St. John’s, you ask? These are all good questions. After watching the Pirates get beat up by the Ice Caps, and engaging in some low-yield research, I’m still not certain I know the answers to them.
This much I know for sure: St. John’s is a city in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, on the northeastern tip of the island of Newfoundland, which is about as far east and north as you can go and still be in North America. The Ice Caps franchise has a history as circuitous and confusing as the backstory on a Marvel Comics superhero, complete with name changes, outfit changes, unexpected reversals of fortunes, and swift departures from one home base to the next.
The Ice Caps’ website has a page with the somewhat biblical title “How the Ice Caps Came To Be.” I expected to read through a series of begats and behold-unto-thems: After four and thirty years, the Manitoba Moose begat the top affiliate for the Vancouver Canucks, and they said ‘come, let us build an arena,’ which they built of brick. And water did they freeze for a rink. Not quite, but pretty close: “On June 8 the team got approval from the AHL. On June 9 the announcement was made, and then the work began. A logo was created, a name was chosen, and a team was built. On Oct. 7 the team played its first regular season game.” Sifting through the polite Canadian PR jargon, what it boils down to is that the Ice Caps, formerly the Manitoba Moose, were booted out of Winnipeg to make room for a new NHL franchise, the second incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets, the original Jets having left town back in ’96 to become the Phoenix Coyotes—who were recently on the verge of moving back to Winnipeg to become the Jets again, until the Atlanta Thrashers did just that.
Such is the tangled biography of a typical AHL team, and the Portlands Pirates’ history is similarly spotted. Minor league hockey teams are batted around like loose pucks, even by comparison to clubs in similar tiers of baseball or basketball. The big thing to know about these Pirates is that this is technically their first year in Portland. While there’s been a Pirates team here since the mid-‘90s, that club was an affiliate of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. But this past spring, Buffalo sent their Portland boys to New York to become the Rochester Americans. A new squad of Pirates, affiliated with yes, the Phoenix Coyotes, came to town.
Northern New England is one of America’s hockey strongholds. Hockey is in the blood up here. Locals enthuse and obsess over the Bruins more in a few days than the poor Phoenix Coyotes might manage in a month. The original incarnation of the Pirates came to Portland in 1993, only a year after the departure of the Maine Mariners, who had held court at the civic center since 1977. Before that, the North American Hockey League’s Maine Nordiques played in nearby Lewiston. Portland without hockey would have just been weird, but that doesn’t mean Portland will fall in love with just any old squad of unshaven dudes with a pair of skates and French-Canadian surnames.
Earning fan loyalty takes time. In Section U, just above the visitor’s bench, I talked to season ticket-holders John and Holly, a father and his adult daughter from Kennebunkport.
“It’s hard, you know?” John told me. “These are all new guys for us.”
The family sitting above me, also season ticket holders, were from Freeport, home of L.L. Bean, 15 miles north of Portland. We started our conversation when I misheard them jokingly disparaging “Newfies,” and I replied that I too was a “newbie” to Maine.
“Oh, really?” one replied. “You’re a Newfie too? So is Frank over here—we’ve been giving him a hard time. Where in Newfoundland are you from?”
I told them I was from New York, which caused some polite head-scratching. After awkward pauses, they kindly gave me their thoughts on the Pirates.
“It’s good hockey,” one of the Freeporters proclaimed. “Hockey” pronounced in true New England fashion as “hauwkey.” I heard the same sentiment from Ernie, another genial fan I was advised to speak with (“he works in public relations, so he’ll have something good to say”) and from the portly guy working the Shipyard Brewery beer stand: “It’s good hauwkey.” Maybe because Sunday afternoon is family day at the civic center, or maybe it was a case of classic New England politeness, but I was hard pressed to hear a negative word about the Pirates from anyone. But then I didn’t hear that many positive words either.
Was it indeed good hockey? Not so good for the Pirates, but the Ice Caps, led by Patrice Cormier’s two goals, looked pretty tight. Cormier, it seems, is a bit of a fallen hero. As a rising star in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Cormier was suspended after viciously elbowing an opponent in the face during the 2010 season (There are dozens of clips of the incident up on YouTube. It’s truly gruesome). He made his pro debut for the AHL’s Chicago Wolves, and this season is struggling to crack the roster of the Ice Caps’ parent team, the Winnipeg Jets. If the jeers of “murderer!” from the crowd were any indication, he has a long way to go to live down his past.
Determined to assess the true goodness of this hauwkey, I started thinking about the sport in general. To the eye unschooled in the vagaries of the sport (like, ahem, mine), hockey can look like a gigantic ice-bound clusterfuck, with dudes skating around at breakneck speeds whaling on each other until a penalty is called or the period is up. But soon enough patterns emerge. The rhythm of the sport is sort of a tangled chess match, or maybe more like Connect Four—all the pieces slide into place, and then everything crashes down—a penalty, a fight, a line change, a power play. As any hockey fan will confirm, there is strategy, there is skill at play, and most importantly, there are moments of surprising grace—even for the Pirates.
Like that moment late in the first period when Pirate Brett MacLean, the AHL’s then-reigning Player of the Month, effortlessly glided through the wreckage of colliding skaters and hooked his own rebound into the net for his tenth goal of the season. For thirty seconds, I “got” hockey. The Ice Caps, however, went on to demolish the Pirates, 5–2. Most of the increasingly mild crowd hung around for the entire game—long enough to see the nasty fight in the third period. Toward the end, all the little kids were clutching their skates, amped up for a chance to free-skate on the ice post-game.
Even if the Pirates aren’t recording too many transcendental moments, they do offer cheap seats, cheap beer, and a cozy—if impersonal—stadium. Maybe it was all the puffy vests and kids lugging cold weather gear, but the whole enterprise reminded me of the start of a high school ski trip. A bunch of good-natured folks with unaffected hairdos, waiting around for something to happen.
The AHL experience is one that people seek out, rather than having spoonfed to them by an army of well-paid media merchants. No Fox Sports robot does aggressive victory dances on the side of your television screen. Pirates games are broadcast on both local TV and radio, but you’ll never understand the appeal of an AHL game without having attended one. At the Cumberland County Civic Center, beers are five bucks, you can win a free auto inspection during in-game contests and watch toddler hockey teams stumble around on the ice in-between periods. Maybe toddlers and free oil changes have as much to do with good hauwkey as the team itself.