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St. John’s looking to bring hockey back, with a potential Canadiens link

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QMJHL or ECHL? That is the question faced by the city as two competing groups begin their courting of hockey fans left without a team to cheer for.

Mile One Centre

The city of St. John’s, Newfoundland is without a hockey team for the first time since the 2008-09 season when the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Fog Devils moved to Montreal to become the Juniors. Overall, the city has hosted either an American Hockey League or QMJHL team for all but three years since 1991.

St. John’s has seen the Toronto Maple Leafs’ farm team move to Toronto, the Winnipeg Jets’ farm team move to Winnipeg, and the Montreal Canadiens’ farm team move to a suburb of Montreal. A victim of its geography and of the trend to bring farm teams closer to the home base has left St. John’s without hockey once again.

“Hockey fans are lost without having a team,” said David Salter, the former Director of Communications for the St. John’s IceCaps, in an interview with Habs Eyes on the Prize. “The community feels it when there is no hockey. It’s a hockey town, and there’s a void, no doubt. In the dark days of winter, having a hockey team gives you a little lift and gives you a reason to leave the house. It’s the heartbeat of the city and it’s good for the community spirit as it gives you something to rally around.”

Beyond raising the community spirit, having a hockey team had a significant economic impact on St. John’s. Mile One Centre is at the heart of the city on George Street where all the pubs and restaurants are situated. People would grab a bite to eat before the game, and pile out after the game to celebrate or commiserate the result of the game. This in turn would create a secondary economy in St. John’s.

To fill the void this season, a pro basketball team was launched: the St. John’s Edge of the National Basketball League. Successful grafting of the new sport to the town’s fabric is still a work in progress, with a sellout crowd of 4,824 at the inaugural game, but dropping to 1,821 by the fourth home game.

This past week news broke that there were two separate attempts to bring hockey back to The Rock in the very near future. First the local paper The Telegram reported that the Edge ownership group was looking at bringing in a QMJHL team to St. John’s. A few days later the outlet revealed that a second ownership group was looking into getting an ECHL team for the island.

The timing of the stories appears to not be coincidental but most likely reactionary, as a battle for public opinion is underway between two competing groups and the level of hockey they want to bring to Mile One Centre.

Heading up the QMJHL bid is John Graham, a well-known hockey promoter who has been involved in several franchise launches, and is partnering with the ownership group of the Edge. The war of words has already begun, and this group has gone on the offensive first.

“(The AHL) has moved on,” said Graham to the Telegram. “The next best thing is Quebec Major Junior. We want quality. Anything less than that, we don’t consider quality.”

“St. John’s is an interesting place when it comes to perceptions on hockey,” Salter said. “The Quebec League is the natural fit with Halifax, Cape Breton, Charlottetown, Moncton, and Saint John. Goes without saying that geographically would make the most sense.”

But when the Fog Devils were in town from 2005 to 2008, success was not obvious. Salter recounted a story told to him by Fog Devils head coach Real Paiement of a time he was at a Tim Horton’s and overheard some old-timers talking about the team, calling it ‘high school hockey.’

“There was a bit of ignorance in the community about junior hockey. You get superstars like Sidney Crosby coming through junior that you never get in the AHL. Perception at the time by the ownership group was that major junior was something new for the city, and they thought that simply opening the doors was enough to get the people to pile in.

“I don’t think that there was enough education done about junior hockey in Newfoundland. It was a new animal there, and maybe people didn’t grasp how good of a calibre of hockey it was. There could have been more marketing involved.

“The city did not embrace that franchise for whatever reason. Maybe over time hockey fans have become more sophisticated — we’ll see — but at the same time there is a strong prevalent opinion that this is a pro hockey town, and there could be an appeal for an ECHL team as a result.”

Rumours of an ECHL bid have been swirling for a while, but the identity of the backers just recently came to light. Dean MacDonald, a well-known local businessman, is heading the charge, and he has recruited a heavy-hitter as part of his team: former St. John’s IceCaps Chief Operating Officer Glenn Stanford.

“I have been a big fan of the East Coast league for a while,” said MacDonald. “It’s a really, really fun, exciting league, and with the IceCaps moving, I felt there was an opportunity. I began working on it and I recently reached out to Glenn and asked him if we could partner to bring [the ECHL] in.”

Salter doesn’t believe there will be a stigma associated with the AA-level ECHL, a lower professional league from the AHL.

“Having the AHL there for so many years, there could be a sense that St. John’s is an AHL town and above the ECHL, however that would be naïve thinking. If you look at the ECHL, there’s teams in some big markets like Cincinnati, Orlando, Atlanta, etc.

“The key to success for an ECHL team is that Newfoundlanders will want to see Newfoundlanders in the lineup. There is no shortage of good local ECHL-level players to choose from. In addition, adding some former popular IceCaps like Eddie Pasquale and Jason Jaffray, players of that ilk, would appease the local hockey fans; players who the fans can identify with.”

Another key to a successful ECHL franchise would be its NHL affiliation, even if ultimately it’s just one goalie and a couple of players who are assigned according to Salter.

“It would not shock me if St. John’s got an ECHL team that Montreal would affiliate with them. Montreal seems to be doing less and less with Brampton, and I know that Montreal loved their time in St. John’s. Larry Carrière even told me that [the IceCaps] were the best-run AHL franchise he’s ever seen, and that included his time in Rochester. I could foresee Montreal setting up shop in St. John’s. If you could do that it would go over very well.”

Another interesting angle for an ECHL team would be the rebirth of old AHL rivalries from when the St. John’s IceCaps were in the Atlantic Division. Portland, Worcester, and Manchester now all have professional hockey teams in the ECHL. “That was our old division, so that would make sense to slot right in there.”

The big benefit of either bringing in a QMJHL or ECHL team would be local ownership in the eyes of Salter.

“With an AHL team — Baby Leafs and the IceCaps — there was always an impending sense of doom of how long would they be able to keep a team in St. John’s since the teams always had outside owners.

We saw that in our last year. Fans don’t want to attach themselves emotionally to something they knew was going to go. There was always this fear that someone else was running the organization. So if you own a team independently, you can tell the fans: ‘Here you go. This team will be here as long as you want it to be here.’

Because of travel costs and added expenses, you can’t afford a dip in attendance. Attendance has to be good there regardless if it’s a QMJHL or ECHL team. There’s not much of a margin of error for making it work.”

Salter offered his thoughts on the two competing proposals.

“There’s been talk of the Q for a few years, and we never got [a team], didn’t get one this year. Part of me is wondering whether the Q is even interested in a team in St. John’s.

“The ECHL, from what I am hearing, appears to be a bit more receptive, and the bid is a bit more far along.

“In the end, I would put my vote behind whichever bid Glen Stanford becomes affiliated with. He’s a senior hockey guy who brought the AHL back to St. John’s and was the COO of the IceCaps most recently. He was also involved with the St. John’s Maple Leafs, he ran the Hamilton Bulldogs for a few years, and he also worked in the ECHL, running the Idaho team. So if Glenn’s involved, I would put my money on Glenn. I would put a lot of stock in what he’s involved with.”

As to whether the IceCaps name would return: “It’s my understanding that it is Danny Williams who owns (the trademark). He’s not involved in either bid as far as I know.”

Whether the IceCaps brand is in play with either of these bids, and if it would be enough to sway popular opinion in its favour is unknown, but certainly a return of hockey to St. John’s would be popular, and apparently only a matter of time.