Six years, five months and 21 days since St. John’s and Newfoundland and Labrador hockey fans last saw an official American Hockey League game, North America’s second-best professional hockey league is set to make a return to the provincial capital tonight.
At around 8 p.m., following what’s expected to be an impressive opening ceremony that’s sure to appeal to nostalgia buffs, the St. John’s IceCaps (farm team of the Winnipeg Jets) and Hamilton Bulldogs (Montreal Canadiens) will line up for the opening faceoff at Mile One Centre.
The last professional hockey team to skate in St. John’s was the Maple Leafs, who were relocated to Toronto by the parent club following a 14-year run at Memorial Stadium and later Mile One Centre.
The Leafs’ final home game came on Friday, April 22, 2005 at Mile One, a 6-1 St. John’s win over the Manitoba Moose to tie their best-of-seven North Division semifinal playoff at a game apiece.
As the series shifted west to Manitoba, the Leafs’ fortunes went south as St. John’s promptly dropped three straight games, ending the team’s season and the Maple Leafs’ run in St. John’s on April 29, 2005.
Ironically, it’s that Manitoba Moose team which relocated to St. John’s last summer to become the IceCaps.
The Moose were forced to look for a new home after Winnipeg landed its long-awaited NHL franchise.
The parent Jets retain ownership of the IceCaps, which have been essentially leased by former premier Danny Williams, the club’s president and chief executive officer.
Since the announcement of the Moose relocation to St. John’s, the team has received remarkable support from the community. Over 5,000 season tickets and a couple of hundred 10-game packages have been sold. For the 16 IceCaps’ home games before Christmas, only 5,000 tickets remain — an average of about 300 per game.
On the corporate side, businesses have been lining up to jump on board. The IceCaps have 33 corporate sponsors.
“The reaction this team has received, from the fans to the corporate partners, has been nothing short of phenomenal,” said IceCaps’ governor and chief operating officer Glenn Stanford who, together with the team’s staff, has worked tirelessly for four months to reach this point.
A number of guests have been invited to tonight’s opening ceremonies, scheduled for 7:30 p.m., which will celebrate the old — the Maple Leafs and provincial senior hockey’s St. John’s Capitals — and the new.
Beginning at 4 p.m., a number of activities are planned for outside Mile One, including live music.
Fans are urged to use the Metrobus Park and Ride program to avoid parking problems downtown. Failing that, fans are encouraged to get to the rink early.