The unavoidable slogan will be “Danny’s got his Moose,” although there’s an expiry date on that phrase since the team will eventually have another nickname. But the gist behind the expression won’t change: after an absence of six years, the American Hockey League is set to return to St. John’s.
On Wednesday evening, former premier Danny Williams stood in front of Mile One Centre to announce he had reached an agreement to have the AHL’s Manitoba Moose relocate to St. John’s for the 2011-12 season. Williams will, in effect, lease the club over a four- or five-year term from True North Sports and Entertainment, which has operated the Moose in Winnipeg for the past 15 years.
With the transfer of the National Hockey League’s Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, the Moose was looking for a new home, and after discussions, followed by negotiations, stretching back over several months, St. John’s has been tabbed as the landing spot for the team, which will become the farm club of the new Winnipeg NHL franchise.
It wasn’t the smoothest touchdown.
Last week, after the provincial government rejected a request to provide $500,000 annually to help cover travel costs associated with
a Newfoundland-based franchise, Williams said the return of the AHL was in jeopardy. He continued to pursue negotiations with True North and St. John’s Sports and Entertainment (SJSE), which operates Mile One on behalf of the City of St. John’s, but as late as Tuesday, with no change in the province’s “philosophical” opposition to the proposal, Williams spoke of the possibility of the deal “slipping away.”
It remained in place after Williams, who says he “is on the hook” for potential operational losses, reviewed and rejigged some numbers, and made some hard decisions.
“It’s going to have to come on the revenue side of the equation,” said Williams of finding a way to cover off the $500,000. “Basically ... what it will be is through ticket prices and corporate sponsorships.
“But it was too good an opportunity to let go, so we worked at it with a vengeance. This was probably our last shot at an AHL franchise ... and I’m just delighted to say we pulled it off.”
Williams couldn’t say what ticket prices will be, although he did suggest — “I might be going out on a limb here,” he cautioned — such information might be available within the course of the next week.
“We have to get all the other numbers finalized,” he said. “We haven’t put anything to paper yet. We’ve got an agreement in principle (with SJSE) and the same goes for an affiliation agreement with True North. Once those are locked in, we should know the ticket prices.”
St. John’s was home to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ farm team for 14 years before the Leafs, who owned the franchise, moved it to Toronto in 2005, citing a wish to have their prospects closer to the parent team. Still, the AHL Leafs were generally considered to be successful operation, and although this deal is still subject to approval by the AHL board of governors, no one is expecting that to be a roadblock, especially, as Williams noted, with AHL commissioner Dave Andrews’ long-time support of the league’s presence in Newfoundland.
St. John’s City Council must also approve the deal with SJSE, although Coun. Danny Breen, who stood next to Williams during Wednesday’s announcement, spoke positively about the arrangement.
“We always knew an AHL team was by far the preferred option (as an anchor tenant) for Mile One,” said Breen, who represents the city on the SJSE board, “but there were times when we wondered if this kind of opportunity would present itself. Now that it has, I believe we have a deal that can make it work for everyone.”
“We haven’t put anything to paper yet. We’ve got an agreement in principle (with SJSE) and the same goes for an affiliation agreement with True North. Once those are locked in, we should know the ticket prices.” - Danny Williams
Breen said the city’s $1.5-million annual operating subsidy for Mile One will not increase because of the presence of an AHL team, adding there might be an opportunity for increased revenue since the deal with Williams goes beyond a straight facility rental. That usually means some sort of sharing arrangement with regards to profits from concessions, signage and/or luxury suites, although Breen wouldn’t provide details before they are presented to council.
“But there is the opportunity for revenues because there will be a flow-through of people at Mile One for 40 nights that wasn’t there before,” he said.
Williams said he was “scrambling” to get a deal this week and that scrambling will certainly continue, given the small window available to move the team and to get it running — AHL training camps will begin in 16 weeks. Williams, who was once vice-chairman of the board that ran the St. John’s Maple Leafs, insists — even with the expected short-term headaches — he will never regret the decision to become re-involved in the AHL as an operator. And the travel subsidy brouhaha he had with the provincial governement and Kathy Dunderdale, his successor as premier, is something “they’ll just put behind us and move on.”
“I won’t wake up tomorrow wondering, ‘What have I done?’ It’s a business, of course, and that means a lot of work, but I’m expecting to have some fun, too, plain and simple,” he said. “It’s fun to be part of something I’m passionate about and that so many in Newfoundland and Labrador are passionate about.”
St. John’s native Glenn Stanford, who ran the St. John’s Leafs and is now the president and governor of the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs, will return to his hometown and take over operations of the new team.
“That’s our biggest advantage given all the challenges facing us, because Glenn Stanford is the best in the business,” said Williams.
A Facebook site (AHLnl) has been established to provide information on the team, which must still sort out its schedule and a slot within in the league structure,. However, it’s expected the St. John’s team will remain where the Moose had been, in the league’s North Division, which includes the Toronto Marlies (the Leafs’ farm team) and the Bulldogs, the affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens.
And there is the matter of a team nickname. Williams said St. John’s will probably adopt the colours of the parent team, but will not be called the Moose, no matter if that nickname is retained but the NHL club in Winnipeg (see story, page C1).
“Too many negative connotations, with all the moose-vehicle accidents we have in this province,” said Williams. “We don’t want to be launching a team nicknamed Moose in September when there are reports of accidents involving moose all over the news.”
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