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New Canadian rivalry is an opportunity for the ECHL

The Brampton Beast look forward a dog fight against the Newfoundland Growlers in 2018-19.

After the folding of the Quad City Mallards and the graduation of the Colorado Eagles to the American Hockey League to be the Colorado Avalanche’s primary farm team, the Newfoundland Growlers are set to become the 27th team in the ECHL for the upcoming 2018-19 season, with a rumoured affiliation with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

This past week, the Growlers unveiled their team name and primary logo, officially materializing something that has been in the works since early December when rumours first emerged of a new professional hockey team in St. John’s. After months of squabbling and negotiating against a rival group that controlled Mile One Arena, the Growlers are set to become the second Canadian team in the ECHL.

Who has the better logo? “I love the Growlers logo, but it’s definitely us”, answered Ken Vezina, the Vice President of Business Operation of the Brampton Beast, with a grin that could be heard through the phone, as the war of playful words between the two teams is well underway.

The Beast will play the Growlers 13 times over the course of the 2018-19 season — their most frequent opponent — so the hope is that a rivalry can develop between the two clubs that would offer an emotional investment for fans, but also allow for a mutual cooperation behind the scenes to help grow the visibility of the ECHL brand in their markets and in Canada in general.

“It will work on two levels. One it will be a partnership; it will be a support that the Beast did not have before. On the other hand, it’s going to be a real good rivalry. Playing up that Canadian angle ... as much as we are going to be partners, we will also hopefully be fierce rivals and competitors. The rivalry part will be easy because if you see a team 13 times you start developing some animosity, some hate, which will make the rivalry much better. Last season we played Adirondack a bunch of times, which always made each game that much better. You always want to put that extra something into it.”

The Beast said that they became aware of the possibility of a new team in St. John’s roughly at the same time as every one else. “There were rumblings a few months ago, you hear certain things, we were all looking to see what St. John’s would do because it’s such a great market, so much success on and off the ice, that there had to be a fit there somehow. We didn’t know for certain until very close to when they made the official announcement.”

The Beast were not concerned with potentially losing their monopoly over Canada, and in fact it was quite the opposite. “We’ve always been very supportive [of expansion into Canada] and the conversation goes back to” what would another team close to us look like? There was never any concern on the league’s behalf of another Canadian team. It was only seen as a positive [for the growth of the ECHL].”

“What we’ve found over the course of five years being around, just general awareness of the ECHL in general has increased substantially. When we came in you’d be shocked how many die-hard hockey fans in the area didn’t have a clear idea what the ECHL was. We’ve helped [develop awareness] a lot. And having a new team out east ... just look at this week with the awesome Growlers logo and the branding that created a lot of buzz. Guys like Jeff Marek and Darren Millard took notice, and they have a real good audience. That all helped to extend the ECHL brand in general in Canada.”

Speaking of the ECHL brand, ‘confusing’ is one way to describe it. Although the league changed its name officially from East Coast Hockey League to simply the orphan initialism ECHL way back in 2003, the wider hockey world has still not picked up on this, and the league continues to be referred to by various derivatives of its original name 15-years after the name change.

Even Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin went on the radio last week, and called it La East Coast, so there exists a serious lack of clarity in the mainstream media and among the hockey world in general. “The league is working on something, and hopefully it will be ready soon.”

“Things have changed dramatically within the last four seasons. We still have daily conversations with people who ask what level of junior hockey we are. There is still this awareness issue where the ECHL falls. The biggest thing for me — and we talk about this internally a lot — every time a player from the ECHL plays a game in the NHL, people have to know about it, and we have to make a big deal of it. The misconception, which is an old one, is that guys get sent to the ECHL and are never heard from again. They’re old, or they’re fighters, or they’re not skilled. That’s not been the case for a long time. What we’ve seen is a shift towards the ECHL being used as it should be by NHL teams, as a true extension of their farm system, similar to baseball developmental.

“The ECHL as a league does a good job promoting that. But then it has to take the next step. It’s not like Fan590 is going to pick up someone making their first appearance in the ECHL, but just making the influencers aware, just to get people past the whole “The Coast” idea, and see that teams are using the league as a legitimate part of their developmental process. Toronto does a real good job. Orlando has always been loaded with their guys. Even our experience last season with Ottawa was great. Pittsburgh is doing a good job as well with Wheeling.”

The Beast have thus far benefited from attracting Canadian talent who wanted to play at the AA pro level in Canada, but now they are potentially facing a dilution of the available talent pool with a second team in the country, although they feel that this won’t affect them much.

“We’re located in the GTA, so we attract a lot of players from the region. That’s how it is and how it’s always going to be, I think. We’re not overly concerned about losing talent to another team. If anything, it develops more interest for players who may want to come here, go there, more people are interested in playing in the League, and more spots are available for them.”

The first ever regular-season all-Canadian ECHL game will occur on Oct 27 in Brampton at the Powerade Centre, and you can certainly expect the Beast to go all-out with the Canada angle.

“We’re going to be promoting that to the fullest extent,” explained Anthony Fusco, who runs public relations for the Beast. “The two Canadian franchises are one of our major marketing components. We are going to pitch to them the idea of a challenge series (a name is not finalized) during the regular season, to see who wins a cup of some sort at the end of the 13 games. We can throw in a charity element to that as well. Honestly, I think marketing that will generate a lot of interest among Canadian hockey fans, and the league will certainly support that initiative.”

Prior to the regular season, there was some talk of a pre-season series in Newfoundland similar to the old Coleman Cup series between the St. John’s IceCaps and the Toronto Marlies, where the two team used to tour the island and play games in towns like Gander and Corner Brook. The Beast also mentioned that they liked the series of pre-season games they played against USports teams last year, so nothing has been finalized in that regard, but certainly options do exist with varying financial implications.

Travel to Newfoundland is not cheap as it requires air travel, which is different from typical ECHL road trips that are lengthy jaunts on a bus across several states. Thankfully, through an arrangement between the Growlers and the league, individual teams are not impacted by the cost of travel, which would have been difficult for smaller-budget teams to absorb. The Beast will travel to St. John’s for three sets of back-to-back games this season, plus the potential pre-season series.

“I don’t know how much of their arrangement with the ECHL is public knowledge, so I don’t know how much I can really say, but it definitely doesn’t increase our operating budget, which is great. Our travel tends to be more difficult than others, so from a hockey side, the team will be happy to take a flight there as opposed to a six-, seven-, eight-hour bus ride. It’s a plus for them. In my casual conversation with players it’s been all positive.”

Those extrapolating and assuming that the Beast/Growlers rivalry will be an ECHL extension of the Montreal Canadiens/Toronto Maple Leafs NHL rivalry might need to wait a bit, however. Both teams exist in a sort of vacuum at the moment, but that should change in mid-June when players and affiliations start getting announced.

“It’s a funny time for us. We can’t announce player signings yet and the affiliation hasn’t been determined. However, things are falling into place with certain players right now and I think it’s kind of exciting. Overall we’re really excited.”

ECHL teams will announce their season-ending rosters on June 15, which includes the completion of any ‘future consideration’ trades, and a list of up to 20 players from the previous season. Starting June 16, ECHL teams can officially start signing players to contracts for the 2018-19 season.