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Portland Ready to Welcome the Sabres

We had to find out for ourselves

Portland, ME—It’s been over a month now since the Buffalo Sabres made it official. The team has formally severed ties with the Rochester Americans, and has signed an affiliation agreement with the American Hockey League’s Portland Pirates.

The Sabres will have its top minor league affiliate all to itself for the first time in three seasons, after having shared the Amerks with the Florida Panthers in what many considered to be an unwieldy arrangement.

So as we rolled into Portland this past weekend on an Ultimate Sports Road Trip ballpark adventure, our quest was simple: to gauge the level of excitement in this town now that the Buffalo Sabres will be the new parent club.

The journey began where it should—at the Cumberland County Civic Center in downtown Portland, which is the home of the Pirates.

While glitzy new arenas have sprung up all across the American Hockey League, the Pirates home can best be described as gritty and spartan. The facility was built at a cost of $8 million and opened in 1977, and is located in an area of downtown that has seen significant redevelopment in recent years. The capacity for hockey is 6,733, and the amenities for both fans and players are few and far between. A few years back the city was on a fast track to build a new arena, but the naysayers, obstructionists, and preservationists got in the way, and those plans were scuttled. The Civic Center will remain as the home of the Pirates for the foreseeable future.

Pulling up to the arena, we looked for the large mural or banner on the façade, heralding the arrival of the new parent club. Perhaps a massive image of Nathan Gerbe or Tim Kennedy? “Your new Portland Pirates”? Something? Anything. But the building sat bare, stoic, and empty on a warm Friday afternoon, the doors to the lobby locked tight. There would be no Sabres buzz at the arena on this day.

Our next stop was Hadlock Field, where the AA Portland Sea Dogs were hosting the Trenton Thunder, affiliate of the New York Yankees. Being a Jonathan Papelbon bobblehead promo night, the place was absolutely packed.

We asked Chris Cameron, the Sea Dogs’ media relations manager, about the buzz about the Sabres coming. “To tell you the truth, it’s baseball season right now and everyone around here is really fixated on the Red Sox,” Cameron replied. “Once the season ends people will turn their attention to hockey.”

Dan Hickling is a sportswriter based in Portland who covers the Boston Bruins and a number of minor league baseball and hockey teams throughout New England. Being a Buffalo native and a dyed-in-the wool Bills and Sabres fan, Hickling was understandably excited at the Sabres’ top prospects coming to his city. “People here are used to winning hockey, and we’ve had it pretty good these past couple years with the Anaheim Ducks, so the expectation is high that the winning days will continue,” Hickling said.

Hickling was pleased that the Sabres have made some bold moves to restock their minor league system with blue-chip prospects. “Having guys like Tim Kennedy, Nathan Gerbe, and perhaps Mathieu Darche on the Pirates squad will certainly generate excitement,” Hickling said. “Gerbe is especially known around these parts, having played for Boston College, and just his name will help sell a lot of tickets to Pirates games this year.”

One issue that was just resolved this past Tuesday is who will be the head coach of the Pirates, now that Randy Cunneyworth has left the organization to become an assistant coach with the Atlanta Thrashers. Current Pirates coach Kevin Dineen was named to stay on with the team and its new parent club.

Hickling had speculated that Dineen would get the call from the Sabres. “Many around here hope it will be Kevin Dineen,” he toldus. Dineen has coached the Pirates since 2005, their entire stint as affiliate of the Ducks. ”You remember what kind of a player Dineen was, tough, scrappy, in your face kind of guy, but he could also score goals. He’s the kind of coach who’ll fit into the Sabres system very well. And he’s very popular here in Portland.”

Last on the list was to head into the stands to find anyone we could wearing a Sabres t-shirt or a Pirates jersey, to do that “man in the street” interview. Certainly there had to be someone, just one person, wearing hockey gear. That one teenager who ran out and got himself a Ryan Miller jersey the day the Sabres and Portland tied the knot, so he’d be the first kid on the street wearing his cool Sabres outfit.

We searched and searched, with no luck. The concourses. The stands. All we saw was a sea of red and blue, and the names on the shirts weren’t Vanek, Enroth, or Kennedy, but rather Ortiz, Beckett, and Ellsbury.

Come fall, the City of Portland, Maine, might become a Sabres town. But for now—sigh—it’s clearly a Red Sox town.

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