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Report: Portland Pirates setting sail for Springfield, MA

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AHL's shift westward haunting longtime eastern-based markets

The Pirates have been in Portland since 1993. Bruno St. Jacques sports the 2005-06 uniform here.
The Pirates have been in Portland since 1993. Bruno St. Jacques sports the 2005-06 uniform here.
Lisa Meyer/Getty Images

With the exception of 1992, the city of Portland, ME has hosted AHL hockey since 1977. Unfortunately, that run has come to a sudden end with the shocking announcement that the Portland Pirates, who began play in 1993-94 when the Baltimore Skipjacks moved north to replace the Maine Mariners, have been sold by owner Ron Cain and will reportedly move to Springfield, MA in time for next season.

The sale and relocation needs the approval of both the American Hockey League and the parent Florida Panthers.

The vacancy in Springfield came about recently when the Falcons were purchased by the Arizona Coyotes with the intention of moving the franchise west to Tucson. This move comes a year after the AHL relocated four eastern-based teams to California, where they were joined in the Golden State by the Bakersfield Condors, after the Edmonton Oilers shifted their AHL affiliate from Oklahoma City, to form the core of the new Pacific Division.

Minor league hockey in Springfield, where the AHL is headquartered, goes all the way back to 1926 with the Springfield Indians of the Can-Am League. That league merged with the original International Hockey League, eventually becoming known as the American Hockey League in 1940, with a second incarnation of the Indians (originally the Quebec Beavers) beginning play in 1935.

While it's great news that the "capital city" of the AHL is getting a team to immediately replace the one that is in the process of departing, this is a huge blow to the city of Portland and Cumberland County, which recently paid $34 million to upgrade Cross Insurance Arena.

Despite icing a team that made the playoffs, the Pirates were second-to-last in the AHL attendance this season, their first under the parent Panthers. Interestingly, the Falcons were the only team to draw less fans. Does this mean the AHL is simply swapping one troubled market for another?

Here's hoping that Portland gets another AHL team at some point in the near future. If not, the city could be a candidate to join former outposts Manchester, NH, Norfolk, VA and Glen Falls, NY in the lower-level ECHL. Worcester, MA, which saw its AHL Sharks relocate west to become the San Jose Barracuda, went without a team this season and will stay dark next year, but will join the ECHL in 2017-18, with a new team called the Railers.