by Greg Glynn || AHL On The Beat Archive
He wore #50, but he wasn’t a player.
He shared the wins and losses, but he wasn’t a coach.
He was a great owner, but he was also a fan.
The late Tom Ebright was the owner of the Baltimore Skipjacks and brought hockey back to Portland in 1993 when the team relocated and became the Portland Pirates.
Ebright’s popularity in Portland was instantaneous. Of course, winning the Calder Cup championship in the team’s inaugural season was certainly a big help. But even had the team not won the Cup, Tom Ebright brought a tremendous amount of valuable qualities to the city of Portland.
In recognition of all of his accomplishments, Ebright was posthumously inducted into the Portland Pirates Hall of Fame present by UNUM on Mar. 27. The night was a special night for many reasons and meant so much to so many different people.
The Hall of Fame induction ceremony during featured the entire Ebright family, including Tom’s wife, Joyce, and their grandchildren, wearing the colors of Ebright’s team and his #50 on their backs.
“My grandchildren (John and Jacob) never had the opportunity to meet their grandfather," said Joyce Ebright. "With his induction into the Pirates Hall of Fame, they get a sense of the man and the legacy that he left behind. Tom had an instant connection with the fans of Portland because they shared a mutual passion for hockey."
When the Ebright brought hockey back to Portland in 1993, he wanted to set a new standard for professional hockey in Maine. The team, named the Portland Pirates, went on an incredible voyage and won the Calder Cup in their inaugural season. He set the bar pretty high.
However, in the summer of 1997, while waiting for a heart transplant in Hershey, Pa., Tom Ebright passed away.
In 1994, current NESN broadcaster Tom Caron was behind the microphone to call the Pirates’ Calder Cup championship. Since the team didn’t bring an analyst for road games, Ebright joined Caron in the booth during the championship run. Caron remembers vividly Game 6 of the divisional finals in Glens Falls, N.Y., and the excitement Ebright had for the game.
“It was late in regulation, the Pirates and Red Wings tied up, when Olaf Kolzig made a flurry of saves to keep the game tied with about five minutes left," recalled Caron. "I’m practically screaming the play-by-play, and Tom was jumping up and down with excitement to my right. Things settled down, the game resumed, and as we’re calling the game the emergency phone starts ringing and blinking.
"I threw it to a commercial break, and grabbed it. It was the radio station back in Portland. Tom had apparently unplugged all of our wiring during the sequence and knocked us off the air. I connected everything, got us back on the air for the final three minutes of the game, and the Pirates went on to win in overtime. I also asked Tom if he wouldn’t mind switching sides with me so he’d be a little further away from the connections. That’s a policy I strictly enforced every time he joined me in the booth from that day forward."
The Pirates’ team videographer Dale Darling captured all the memories of the Portland Pirates’ championship season through his camera lens. While shooting professional hockey games at the Cumberland County Civic Center for over 31 years, Darling remembers working with Ebright from day one.
“I always described him as an owner and fan, because if a fan walked up to him during the game he would talk to the fans," said Darling. "He wore his #50 jersey and he was there to watch the game just like everybody else. Yes, he did a lot for the city, but his primary reason for being there was for the game. He was just super, I loved the guy."
In addition to Ebright’s friendly nature, his passion as a fan made him a very popular owner to the Portland fans. And in addition to his passion for hockey, Ebright also laid the groundwork for the Pirates presence in the community that remains a brand attribute today.
Ebright was a longtime member of the AHL Board of Governors and had a distinct impact on the American Hockey League, which created the Thomas Ebright Memorial Award in his honor. The award is presented annually for outstanding career contributions to the American Hockey League. Current AHL President/CEO Dave Andrews was on hand to help induct Ebright into the Hall of Fame.
"In 1994 the AHL launched a strategic plan which has resulted in tremendous growth to 29 active franchises from 16, stretching across the U.S. and Canada," said Andrews. "All 30 NHL teams now develop their best players in our League, and attendance has reached over 6 million fans annually. Tom Ebright would be so proud of where we are today because he not only shared that vision, as the chairman of the league’s executive committee he encouraged it. He was a champion of new ideas who believed that the AHL and the Portland Pirates had unlimited potential.
"He was right."
The night of Mar. 27 was also a very special night for Pirates head coach Kevin Dineen, who won his 190th game behind the Pirates bench and set a new franchise record for number of overall career coaching victories (including playoffs). The previous record was held by Barry Trotz (189), the current head coach of the Nashville Predators. Dineen, who had just broke one of the longest standing records in franchise history, knew this night was all about honoring Tom Ebright.
"You always respect the Ebright family and you see them all here and it’s their special night," said Dineen. "It’s all about them and the commitment they made to this franchise and this city, the sweat and the tears. They put a lot of time put into this building."
The Portland Pirates have honored the former owner by establishing the Tom Ebright Award, given to the player who best exemplifies what it means to be a Portland Pirate. To this day, Mr. Ebright’s jersey (#50) has been the only number retired by the Portland Pirates.