So long, San Antonio: Panthers announce AHL affiliation with Portland

SUNRISE, Fla. — Florida Panthers prospects will have a new home beginning next season.

After a four-year partnership with the San Antonio Rampage, the Panthers announced Wednesday that the organization will bid farewell to the Lone Star State at the end of this season after entering into a four-year agreement with the Portland Pirates.

This new affiliation will see the Panthers move their current American Hockey League prospects from San Antonio, Texas, to Portland, Maine. As part of the agreement, the Panthers will provide players, coaches, and hockey operations personnel while the rest of the Pirates staff remains intact.

This will be the seventh different AHL affiliation for the Panthers since their inaugural NHL season in 1993.

"We are extremely pleased to announce this new affiliation with Portland," Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said in a release. "Portland is a great hockey town, and we look forward to our prospects continuing to grow and develop in a successful and winning culture in Portland.

"I also would like to thank Rick Pych and Spurs Sports & Entertainment for partnering with the Panthers during the last four seasons. It truly has been a pleasure working with a first-class organization. In addition, we would like to thank all of the terrific fans in San Antonio who have supported our AHL team there. We look forward to a solid finish this season in San Antonio, while qualifying for the Calder Cup playoffs."

During their most recent partnership with the Panthers — the Rampage also served as Florida’s AHL affiliate from 2005-2009 — San Antonio made the playoffs just once, but looks poised to make a run at the Calder Cup this season.

With top prospects like Rocco Grimaldi and Connor Brickley leading the way, the Rampage currently reside in fourth place in the AHL’s Western Conference and boast a 35-20-5-1 record.

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Eric Joyce, who is in his first season as San Antonio’s general manager, will serve in the same position in Portland, overseeing all matters related to the club’s minor-league hockey operations.

"Portland is a vibrant city and hockey-rich market that will provide our prospects with an exceptional environment for growth and development," said Joyce. "The Pirates roster will include our organization’s top prospects who will compete hard and play an exciting style of hockey for the fans of Portland."

In leaving San Antonio, the Panthers will also benefit from escaping one of the AHL’s toughest travel schedules. Each year, the Rampage are forced to hit the road for the month of February as the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo takes over the AT&T Center in what is known as the "Rodeo Road Trip".

Joyce believes that Florida’s prospects will benefit from the stability that Portland’s schedule provides while also helping players stick to the organization’s strict health and fitness regimen.

"San Antonio, through no fault of their own, just based on location, is a tough place for players to consistently stay on the rigorous program that we ask them to stay on to achieve their dream of making the National Hockey League," said Joyce. "We feel like we’re giving all the players in our system a better chance now to do just that."

Panthers defenseman Alex Petrovic, who played in 142 games for the Rampage from 2011-2015, says the demanding travel schedule thankfully never affected the team too much in terms of wins and losses.

"Some years it was hard. Other years, when you have a good team, it didn’t really matter," Petrovic said. "This year, I think our record shows that we’ve done pretty good on the road. I don’t think it affects how you play."

Established in 1993, Portland is the fourth-longest tenured AHL franchise operating continuously in its current market. The Pirates have qualified for the Calder Cup Playoffs a total of 15 times, winning a championship in 1994.

Portland’s home facility, the Cross Insurance Arena, reopened last year after a $35 million renovation project, which improved both the exterior and interior of the building. The building, which seats 6,157 for hockey, hosted the AHL All-Star Classic in 2003 and 2010.

"We are very excited about this partnership," Pirates COO Brad Church said. "Florida is a great organization, headed in the right direction in the NHL’s Eastern Conference. With an exciting roster built around promising young players, our fans will have the chance to see their prospects complete the full development process which will begin here in Portland."

You can follow Jameson Olive on Twitter @JamesonCoop or email him at JamesonOlive@gmail.com.