When the Montreal Canadiens moved the St. John’s IceCaps, Montreal’s American Hockey League farm team, to Laval, Newfoundland business executive Dean MacDonald saw an opportunity and led a group of investors to a successful bid for an ECHL expansion franchise to replace the IceCaps, the Newfoundland Growlers, affiliated with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Lately, MacDonald has made the news by fronting a second ECHL expansion bid, this time in Trois-Rivières where a new arena is being built with the goal of housing a new hockey team for the start of the 2020-21 season. MacDonald’s proposal, with the full support of the Canadiens, appeared to be a common-sense selection for the new arena, however negotiations have been anything but smooth.
“For us, honestly, it’s been a bit odd,” said MacDonald in an interview with Eyes On The Prize. “When the whole process started, we were invited to come to Trois-Rivières because they wanted an anchor tenant. So we went there, spent time and basically received the ‘okay, let’s see if we can make this work.’ So to us, they wanted us to come there, and it was just a question of working out the lease.
“The reality is a hockey lease is pretty straightforward. There’s only three sources of revenue: it’s sponsorships, ticket sales, and food concessions. So it’s not that complicated. We said we’re available to do anything the city wishes. If you want us to run the facility, we can do that for you, because we feel we can do a really good job based on our relationships with concert and entertainment folks, we can be hockey-only, we’re open to however you want to handle that now.
“In the fall, just through a casual conversation, [Mayor Jean Lamarche] informed someone in our group that he was going in a different direction that he was no longer interested. So that caught us, quite frankly, by surprise because it hadn’t been communicated to us formally. And so we wrote the mayor in mid-November and say, ‘hey, look, you’ve stated publicly that anyone who comes in will be on your terms. We see a lot discussions about “terms that are good for us,” but we’re not getting any feedback. Why don’t you just tell us what the terms are that work for you?’ Because we keep throwing darts at the dartboard not knowing what the target is. And so we didn’t hear it for a month.”
There have always been only two realistic options for a hockey team in Trois-Rivières: the first one was the ECHL team, and secondly it’s the USport UQTR (Université de Québec à Trois-Rivières) Patriotes. Although their home games currently draw only 200-300 fans, there is some significant weight behind that group, including the owner of Cirque de Soleil. Mayor Lamarche has come out against co-habitation given that it would incur an additional cost of about two million dollars to convert the facility to handle two tenants.
“We saw there was a whole bunch of discussion about the Patriotes university team, so we stated that ‘look, we’re happy to co-habitate, we don’t see that as a big problem.’ From our perspective I still don’t understand why two teams can’t operate out of the same building as it seems like there’s a whole bunch of really good synergies. It gives a whole bunch of kids an opportunity maybe to play at a higher level. We will have coaching there, we will do all the things that should be helpful to them. And they don’t play that many games. And so, at the end of the day, what’s kind of lost in all this, in my mind, is the economics of running that facility.
“They keep saying that they want to run it and not have to subsidize it, but I’m not sure there’s any civic owned buildings in North America that aren’t subsidized. If you think that you’re going to drive economics by having 15 University games that currently have an average of two or 300 people, it’s just not gonna happen because if you do have to subsidize a building, you want it to be an economic driver.
“So suddenly if you look at us, with 40 or 50 people who are renting apartments etc, and people go to bars and restaurants before the game, etc., etc., that’s an economic driver, and notwithstanding all the people who work in the concessions, clean ice and take tickets in the arenas. It’s actually meaningful employment for 40-plus games.”
Obviously a big part of Mr. MacDonald’s proposal is the affiliation with the Canadiens, one of the province’s major economic drivers. But Montreal’s involvement came into question recently.
“There was some confusion as to whether or not the Canadiens were interested. The Canadiens sent the letter, but the city interviewed somebody else in the organization who said they didn’t know me, which was true because I’d never met with them, but it wasn’t really the person that was involved with hockey operations. So you know, we had to resend the letter recently, just reaffirming the status of things”.
Unfortunately with negotiations drawing out, and uncertainty clouding over proceedings, the plan to launch a new ECHL franchise for the 2020-21 season is no longer possible. But MacDonald’s group is still working on its proposal, this time aiming for the 2021-22 season.
“We lost the ability to ice a team next year because of the deadline. From the day we first walked into Trois-Rivières, in May of last year, we said, ‘look, if you want an ECHL team for the 2020-21 season, we have to have a decision and we have to have things kind of inked by mid-December, because the league starts its scheduling process in mid-December. We’re finalizing it as we speak, because it’s a month of back-and-forth and trading dates, etc.’
“The mayor has been fairly vocal in saying that his preference is the university team, and so it’s a bit of an odd thing when we started. They approached us and now suddenly it’s changed. There hasn’t been a whole lot of communication. The letter we sent in November went unanswered for a month. So as an investor, to get one of these teams up and running between franchise fees and all the work you do ... it’s a few million bucks. It creates 40-50 jobs, it has a lot of good economic benefit to the city. But if we’re not wanted, what are we fighting for? If you don’t want us, just tell us, we’ll go away. We have other markets we’re looking at, so we’re not offended.
“What I understand is that there is some consternation amongst council, because there seems to be a whole bunch of counsellors wondering why they would turn down having a professional ice hockey team. That seems to be a wonderful opportunity. So it sounds like there’s some mixed feelings. We know where the mayor stands, which is certainly not on our side, but at this point we will go in to present.
“To me there is some comfort in actually not being on that ice next year. Because it gives us more time to prepare, and gives the city a chance to look at what they’ve got on their hands. It could change the tone and tenor of the discussion because they’ll start realizing that this wasn’t quite what they were expecting with a $16-million facility.
“We’ve already invested a lot of time and resources into the project and if at the end of the day, the city doesn’t want us, well, we respect that decision. It’s not the end of the world, that’s for sure. We just can’t be pushing it uphill. It doesn’t feel right.”
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview with Mr. MacDonald, where he talks about his relationship with the Montreal Canadiens, their plans for the affiliation, and the role Marc-André Bergeron played and will continue to play.