Pirates setting sail towards Calder Cup dream

by Chris Roy

No, this isn’t Disney on Ice.

When the Disney company sold the Mighty Ducks to the Samuelis last June that didn’t stop the Portland Pirates from making their own Magic on Ice.
At the press conference held in Portland last May, the Portland Pirates announced a new five-year affiliation agreement with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. For the last 12 years the Pirates had been affiliated with the Washington Capitals, it was considered at the time to be exactly what was needed to revive a hockey franchise on life support: a renewed commitment to winning mixed with young prospects and experienced veterans.

Ducks’ senior vice president/interim general manager Al Coates was instrumental in putting the deal together that would see the Mighty Ducks move their AHL operations from Cincinnati to Portland. He was convinced that being in Portland could offer the Mighty Ducks two important factors in developing their young prospects for the future: one was a reduced travel schedule and the other is a community where the players are recognized and known as well as being held to higher standards.

“In Portland you have a hockey atmosphere; the players are known there which is part of growing up and part of being in the National Hockey League. Its recognition and having to be a good citizen as well as a good hockey player, given the history of the Portland Pirates, the city and local ownership group, it was a going to be a conducive [environment] to develop players.

Travel was also an important factor that the Mighty Ducks took into consideration. “We clearly wanted to get a place if we could where there would be less travel time, which equates to more practice time and more nights at home, said Coates. “From my past experience with the New York Rangers being in a New England division, the travel and the rivalry, like Manchester is in our division. We [Anaheim] play Los Angeles eight times. It’s never too early get people thinking about what it will be like to play these guys head-to-head,” said Coates.

Al Coates made an important promise at that press conference. “We believe in winning as part of the development of our players,” said Coates. Current GM Brian Burke also believes in that statement signing several free agents to play in Portland such as defenseman Kent Huskins, Pirates captain Aaron Gavey and forward Geoff Peters, who is having a career season with Portland, scoring a career best 23 goals and 20 assists for 43 points in 62 games.

The Pirates also have been able to prosper on the good drafting of Anaheim with first-round draft picks Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry each seeing time in Portland this season, as well as the ability of the Ducks scouting staff to spot prospects such as Ryan Shannon, who was named to the 2005-06 AHL All-Rookie Team.

The 5-foot-9, 180-pound native of Darien, Conn., has opened the eyes of other coaches and general managers with his speed and skill with the puck and his ability to play defensive hockey. As one of the stars in the Pirates line-up this season, Shannon has scored 25 goals and 57 assists for 82 points in 68 games, which is currently ranked second among rookie scoring, ninth overall in AHL scoring leaders.

Shannon leads rookies in assists (57) and plus/minus (+30), which also puts him in second place among all scorers. Shannon’s linemate Dustin Penner, who plays close to 25 minutes per game with the Pirates, is also having a breakout season. In 54 games with the Pirates this season, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound forward has still managed to remain near the top in AHL scoring despite playing 19 games with Anaheim. Penner is currently tenth in the league, scoring 38 goals and 41 assists for 79 points, also ranking fifth in goals and first in plus/minus (+41).

With this potent line-up, the Pirates have increased their scoring 65 percent from last season, with the Pirates netting 292 goals.

Of course, you need someone to stir the soup and mold the ingredients together and when Burke hired first-year head coach Kevin Dineen, he turned some heads as people might have thought twice about hiring a coach with no previous coaching experience.

“One of the first things that he said to me was, ‘I already know what I think, I don’t want you to come in or have me call you on phone and to tell me what I think or want to hear,” Dineen said of Burke. “‘I want to know what you think; you don’t agree with me, I want to hear that.’ We can have an [argument] and go back and forth, but at the end of the day we can walk out of the room on the same page.”

Burke must have liked what he heard and Dineen hasn’t disappointed, leading the Pirates to their best season since the franchise relocated to Portland from Baltimore in 1993 and winning the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the AHL’s outstanding coach for the 2005-06 season.

With Anaheim’s winning-first attitude the Pirates have flourished this season, winning a record 50 games and breaking the previous record set back in 1994-95 (47). The Pirates have set a new franchise record for the number of road wins in a season (25) as well.

“The one big thing that I am really, really proud of is our road record, I think that is a great reflection on character, when good things happen, it shows and it really shows in your road record,” said Dineen.

Dineen has approached coaching in the same fashion as he played the game for his entire 18-year playing career, believing in gritty toughness and hard work.

It is that approach and commitment to winning from the Mighty Ducks that has led to a resurgence at the turnstiles. The fans are coming back to the Cumberland County Civic Center to witness exciting, on-the-edge-of-your-seat hockey. With three home games remaining the Portland Pirates had already eclipsed last year’s total attendance. This season, 188,765 fans have witnessed Pirates hockey – an average of 4,840 per game – including 10 games with crowds over 6,200 in attendance.

“We have a real hardcore fan base, that hardcore 3,000 that are there every night and they support us, there’re loud, they know the players, they’re passionate and now we’re trying to build to the next step and build to 5,000 through our enthusiasm and excitement,” said Dineen.

Portland also carries into the new affiliation agreement a renewed sense of giving back to the community through the Portland Pirates Foundation, whether it is raising money for the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital or doing other fundraisers such as An Evening with the Pirates, which raises money for numerous charities in Portland, or Goals for Gary’s House, raising money so families can stay while visiting a family member in a local hospital.

“We feel it in the room, we feel it on the street and I’ve said this when I broke into the league, without our fans we’re nothing,” said Pirates captain Aaron Gavey. “With empty seats we don’t feel the support, but every night the fans are filling the seats and they support us in everything we do whether is the children’s hospital or other fundraisers. Anything that we do we get full support and at the same time we enjoy giving back to our fans and it makes it that much more special that we’ve accomplished that.”

As the Pirates embark of the final three games of the regular season, it can be assured that they have recaptured the hearts of the residents of the Greater Portland Area as they set sail in search of the bounty known as the Calder Cup.