The St. John’s IceCaps announced on Tuesday afternoon the Let’s Celebrate campaign that commemorates 20 years of successful professional hockey in Newfoundland, bringing a sense of closure for the fans of Newfoundland who are at risk of being without a professional hockey team once again.
When the Habs replaced the Winnipeg Jets as NHL partners of the IceCaps in 2015, it was always known that it would be a temporary arrangement while the City of Laval completed construction of a new arena to house the farm team of the Canadiens. Since the Canadiens declined on their option year and made the move to Laval official in the summer of 2016, the IceCaps had been working feverishly to secure a partnership with another team, whether an AHL affiliate or a QMJHL team.
St. John’s has a long storied history of hockey, with a strong, passionate fan base, but with four teams in the last 10 years, it’s understandable that they have become somewhat frustrated. But the fans of professional hockey in St. John’s are no strangers to breakups and rebound hookups, and this latest announcement is a way of bringing an end to that complicated history.
It all started with their long-term relationship with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The St. John’s Maple Leafs were a staple in Newfoundland, serving as the farm team for Toronto for 14 seasons, from 1991 to 2005, before Toronto repatriated the farm team home to become the Toronto Marlies, to the great chagrin of a generation of fans who grew up with the team. The strong connection to the Maple Leafs is still felt to this day when the Marlies come to town to play against the IceCaps. The crowd is distinctly split on their allegiance between the loyalty to their current team, and the nostalgic memories of a previous relationship.
After the Maple Leafs left in 2005, the St. John’s Fog Devils of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League quickly entered the scene, operating from 2005 to 2008, but the team eventually moved to Montreal to play as the Juniors, and settled in Blainville-Boisbriand in 2011 to play as the Armada.
From 2008 to 2011 the good people of Newfoundland were without a team to call their own, but in 2011 professional hockey jubilantly returned to Newfoundland, in the form of an American Hockey League affiliate of the Winnipeg Jets. The team was previously located in Winnipeg, playing as the Manitoba Moose. When the NHL Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg, the AHL franchise was shipped to St. John’s where the newly christened IceCaps drew over 6,200 fans on average over three years to Mile One Stadium, and a notch below 5,800 in their final season. In 2015 the Jets decided to relocate their farm team, and that’s when the window to a temporary partnership with the Montreal Canadiens opened.
The annual average attendance for games in 2015-16 was a strong 5,717, well above AHL league average. After the Montreal Canadiens announced the relocation, attendance dropped to 4,095 as fan hearts were once again torn asunder, coming to terms with the divorce by staying away from the games.
This celebration will hopefully help bring some closure to a lot of understandably frustrated fans, while reigniting the passion for hockey as the IceCaps fight for a playoff spot. It will hopefully serve as a platform for getting the city noticed by the various Leagues as a fertile ground for a stable long-term relationship. Ideally the fans will once again be able to grow a deep bond with their team, and not be subject to another in a series of fleeting affiliations that run their course.
God knows they deserve it.
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