From Baltimore, with love

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Portland, Maine -- The differences are at once obvious. The team that was the Baltimore Skipjacks -- and little more than an afterthought in Baltimore -- is now the Portland Pirates, the hottest ticket in this city of 65,000 on Casco Bay.

The story of the Pirates' success is as much a story of the mind-set of the city's residents as it is a story of the team's striking on-ice accomplishments. In 1993-94, their first season here, the Pirates won the American Hockey League's Calder Cup. They opened this season with a 17-game unbeaten streak, setting a record for the best start by any North American hockey team.

"We're a good minor-league town," said Portland City Manager Robert Ganley. "If you're a minor-league town, you're not holding out for a major-league team. We take pride in what we are. The Pirates are our team. We wanted our city's name on their uniforms. I think it would be very tough being a minor-league team in a major-league city."

And it was.

The Skipjacks, who were the Washington Capitals' AHL affiliate, played a few blocks away from the Orioles. They shared the Baltimore Arena with the Spirit indoor soccer team, the Thunder indoor lacrosse team and every other entertainment event that happened into downtown. On a good night, they drew about half of the 6,297 average attendance in Portland.

In six years of ownership in Baltimore, Tom Ebright said he lost $2.5 million. Last year, spending about $2 million closing out the Baltimore operation and starting up the Pirates here, he broke even.

This year, he expects "a modest profit" in the $100,000 range.

"I left because I didn't have the money I believed necessary to make AHL hockey work in Baltimore," said Ebright, president of Royce, Ebright and Associates, a mutual fund investment adviser.

Ebright left Skipjacks fans in Baltimore feeling jilted. He had announced an agreement with the Capitals in Baltimore for another season. He just had been offered $150,000 in corporate aid from local businesses.

And then he up and left.

"[Capitals general manager] David Poile thought I was crazy to leave after telling everyone I was staying," said Ebright, sitting in his new townhouse on a dock at the foot of the city's upscale Old Town district.

"But I had to take this opportunity," he said. "It was a chance to succeed and feel good about it. I told David, 'I don't care what I told you; I need a change.' Almost no one in Baltimore cared about the Skipjacks. The only thing I feel bad about is that I wish I hadn't held the news conference and told people I'd try to stick it out another year."

(On Jan. 29, 1993, Ebright told Skipjacks fans: "You fans can look forward to at least one more season of hockey.")

"I really believe if I had stayed in Baltimore," Ebright said, "not only would I have lost the business, but I would have lost the Capitals affiliation."

Three trouble areas

Ebright said he has thought a great deal about why the Skipjacks couldn't make it in Baltimore. He has come up with three reasons for their troubles:

* The building issue: The Baltimore Arena is perceived as old, dirty and unsafe.

"I think it is safer, cleaner and a lot nicer than people give it credit for, but because it is perceived as second-rate, people don't want to come there," he said. "In Portland, even though the arena is about the same age, is downtown and is square at the ends just like the Baltimore Arena, it is perceived as a jewel."

* The competition issue: In the Skipjacks' best season, they drew 156,000 fans, about 50,000 short of what Ebright said he needed to break even at an average ticket price of $8.

Last season in Portland, 210,000 fans paid admission. In Baltimore, Ebright points to indoor soccer and lacrosse in the same building with the Skipjacks and the major-league Bullets and Capitals 30 miles away in Landover, all vying for the same entertainment dollar.

* The access issue: He said advertising his hockey product in Baltimore was 10 times more expensive than in Portland. He also said trying to "tell your story" to the public, whether in the newspapers or on radio or television, was "tremendously difficult," even when there was a good story to tell.

"Our last season in Baltimore, the New York Rangers had sent their goalie, Mike Richter, to the minors, and he played two games against us in Baltimore," Ebright said. "It was well-known in advance, but you couldn't tell anybody. It was like being bottled up. Here he was a star player in town for two games, and you couldn't get the message out cost-effectively.

"Baltimore just wasn't proud of a minor-league team. They only wanted major-league."

Ebright said one solution would be to build an 8,000-seat, state-of-the-art suburban arena with easy access, in either the Timonium or White Marsh areas.

Ebright also offered a harsh assessment of the Baltimore business community, calling it "shortsighted."

"The business community doesn't think the sports activities there -- outside of the Orioles -- are very important," Ebright said. "They don't support them, and that allows the arena to die and supports the perception that the building isn't very good."

"Baltimore is a major-league city," said Poile, the Caps GM. "It really wasn't interested in minor-league hockey. It's like Dallas. Dallas had a minor-league hockey team, and it did so-so. . . . [But] when the NHL moved a franchise there, it took off. It has been very successful. It's all a matter of the perceptions people have and their willingness to support the teams in their city.

"Right now, Baltimore has the CFL, but they're continually talking about getting an NFL team back. That's the difference, and that's why players were a very, very small part of the scene there."

A major difference

In minor-league Portland, the Pirates are major-league.

The Pirates average 6,297 fans in the 6,746-seat Civic Center. According to Portland Biz, a monthly business magazine in southern Maine, downtown business increases by 20 percent on game nights. Next to the arena at Tabitha Jean's, a bar-restaurant owned by author Stephen King's daughter, business doubles. At a nearby Irish pub, it goes up 30 percent.

"The Pirates are the talk of the town," said Blaik Watson, who works at Walter's Cafe in Old Town. He and his wife, Lorna, are season-ticket holders. "People care. After that unbeaten streak ended, people got antsy. They actually got on [goalie] Jim Carey's back when he had a 14-1-5 record.

"But these guys came in and won the city of Portland's heart from Day One. You see them out signing autographs, helping charities. They've been great."

The Pirates have impact.

In Baltimore, Ebright wound up begging the city to help get local businesses to help the franchise. In Portland, the Pirates have a waiting list of businesses who want to advertise in the arena.

At the Portland Civic Center, ads adorn every square inch of the boards circling the ice. There are ads on the ice, and banners with ads hang from the ceiling.

There are balloons with ads floating in the corners, a revolving ad sign under the scoreboard, a computerized sign board with ads and ads projected on blank walls. Despite the variety of inventive methods to increase opportunities for advertisers, the Pirates simply have run out of space.

The Pirates also have celebrity status.

Coach Barry Trotz and his players are mobbed for autographs when they take their families out for meals. Stop in a local restaurant, and the host tells you the assistant coach, Paul Gardner, is expected there for dinner.

"They go out and meet the people," said Mike Lowe, who covers the Pirates for the Portland Press Herald. "Kevin Kaminski and Kerry Clark are cult heroes in this town. Whatever they want to do, they can do."

Lowe said he is surprised that the city has taken to the team so fast.

"But they've made it a real family atmosphere," he said. "Yeah, there are fights and it can get bloody, but they've always got some promotion going on, some stunt, T-shirt give-aways. Everyone takes something memorable away from every game."

Circus on ice

For anyone who ever attended an indoor soccer game at the Baltimore Arena, what the Pirates are doing in Portland will seem very familiar.

There are fireworks when the home team scores. There are laser-and-smoke introductions and the wackiest intermission breaks this side of Barnum & Bailey.

"Some of the things we borrow from things we've seen; others we brainstorm," said Godfrey Wood, the team's president and general manager, who masterminds the between-periods shows. "The best thing we've done is probably the human slingshot, where we put a kid in a laundry basket and had his or her parents pull it back in a slingshot and shoot the kid down the ice toward the goal."

They've also had:

* The $100,000 deal in which fans were invited onto the ice, and, while money was blown like snow in a Maine blizzard, they tried to stuff as many bills as possible into their shirts.

* The "Rolling in the Dough" contest, where they piled a huge mound of pizza dough at center ice and fans dug for prizes buried inside.

* The Jelly Doughnut Treasure Hunt when Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld came up for a game, in recognition of that great NHL playoff scene when Schoenfeld, then coach of the New Jersey Devils, screamed at an official, "Have another doughnut, you fat pig!"

The Pirates also claim the world's only skating parrot, "Crackers," as the team mascot, and have "Miss Conduct," who provides water and towels to players in the penalty box, and "Pretty Lady."

"You know that old saying, 'It isn't over till the fat lady sings'?" said Ebright. "Well, we didn't think fat lady was politically correct, so we decided to hire Pretty Lady and have her sing, 'It's over, it's over, it's over,' when she thought the game was over. Turned out she thought it was over very early, and she kept singing. We got fined $100 for taunting the other team."

Pretty Lady is still on the payroll, but Ebright said the Pirates are trying to figure out what she can do without being penalized.

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