Two-horse race to play Mile One?

Robin
Robin Short
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They’re not through the first turn yet, but it appears a two-horse race is developing over which outfit will be playing hockey at Mile One Centre in the next year or two.

News this week has a group from the city inquiring seriously about icing an ECHL team in St. John’s. The erstwhile East Coast Hockey League (the name was officially shortened a few years ago) is a rung below the American Hockey League on the minor pro pecking order.

I’ve never seen an ECHL game, but by all accounts it’s a decent brand of hockey. So decent, 79 ECHL graduates were on NHL rosters on opening day this season.

The local group appears to have its ducks in a row. Finances are in place and talks have been ongoing with Mile One regarding a lease. Later this month, the group will have representatives at the league’s All-Star Classic in Bakersfield, Calif., where they will meet with the ECHL’s board of governors.

Meantime, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League isn’t dead in the water, either.

Friday morning, St. John’s Sports and Entertainment met, likely to discuss the ECHL deal and a major junior hockey plan which may be gaining momentum.

Some sources, in fact, are saying the group that includes Tony Kenny, John Fisher and Bill Kennedy (those three were also in the mix to buy a QMJHL expansion franchise back in 2005, but lost out to local businessman Derm Dobbin) have a deal in place to buy the Acadie-Bathurst Titan, and relocate the team to St. John’s next season.

Maybe, but if we’ve learned anything about current Titan owner Leo-Guy Morrissette, a deal isn’t a deal until the money’s changed hands and the league is officially announcing the move.

Remember Morrissette a couple of years ago, when he was negotiating with St. John’s to transfer the Titan? The city, so confident the move was in place, was all but declaring a deal was done.

Until Morrissette issued a news release on a Sunday evening announcing a Monday morning press conference — in Bathurst, N.B. — at which time he would be discussing the team’s future.

So much for the Titan coming to Newfoundland.

St. John’s, negotiating with good intentions, had been played by a shrewd, cagey and perhaps even underhanded character.

And even if a deal is nailed down between the Kenny group and the Titan owner, will it be accepted by the QMJHL? The league, perhaps even moreso than the city, doesn’t want to see its brand fail a second time in St. John’s.

So, before the board of governors signs off on St. John’s, everything will have to be firmly in place, not the least of which is financing.

Still, things are moving, so a building that might be the most underutilized facility of its kind in Canada — name another 6,000-seat rink that doesn’t have a major tenant, namely a pro, major junior or junior A hockey team? — just might have a choice as to what league/team it prefers.

What that is might depend on which group gets to the Mile One boardroom first.

Public opinion appears to be split over pro vs. major junior, though some of the online comments about the ECHL are preposterous.

You have to wonder where some folks picked up the haughty attitude. Since when did St. John’s become a major league city, where lower-level minor pro hockey is somehow downgraded as something akin to an oafish facsimile of the pro game?

MILE ONE NEEDS HOCKEYU

Of course, it might be the same crowd that ridiculously referred to the QMJHL as “high school” hockey.

There’s no question Mile One needs a hockey team. Fifty million dollars wasn’t spent on a building to host beer league recreation skates between scattered entertainment.

Question is, will St. John’s support major junior hockey again, or AA-level minor pro?

St. John’s has often been described as a hockey town.

Explain then, please, how it was that just 2,000 or 2,500 people turned out to watch Tyler Seguin, Braydon Schenn, Jeff Skinner, Zack Kassian, Louis Leblanc, Erik Gudbranson, Ryan Johansen and the rest of Canada’s best junior-aged players at the world junior summer evaluation camp at Mile One, while across town, a full house at Jack Byrne Arena was rockin’ and rollin’ to, of all things, ball hockey?

Something tells me the biggest job facing the whole hockey-and- Mile-One-thing won’t be getting a team, but rather dragging fans out to these perceived substandard games.

Yet they fill the place for the Herder.

Go figure.

Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email at rshort@thetelegram.com

Organizations: East Coast Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, American Hockey League NHL

Geographic location: Bakersfield, Calif., Canada, Bathurst Newfoundland.St. John

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  • Steve-O
    January 17, 2011 - 20:13

    Whatever league comes here they have to market the team not just land it in Mile One and just leave it there hoping someone walking by will come in a watch it. But make sure that it is in the media, and advertised properly, this could be the last chance NL so support it if this fails good luck trying to convince an NHL owner that they should put their AHL affiliate here support what we get. Case in point follow what Winnipeg is doing they are doing pretty decent with the AHL but want an NHL team they are supporting a lower league hoping the NHL will return, St. John's wants the AHL so support the league that comes here then we may get another chance for the AHL but in the meantime support what we get. If not we may end up like Hamilton chances of the food fishery returning like it was will be more realistic then the AHL returning. Whatever comes here it will have my support as the previous teams had.

  • Michael Kennedy
    January 15, 2011 - 09:01

    Mr. Short, you make some great points. Newfoundlanders have a tendency to wear a strong bias toward all things local. And who can blame them?! But if you only paid attention to local chit chat you would swear that Republic of Doyle was the best show on television or that Hey Rosetta!, Great Big Sea and the Novaks were making the best music in Canada. Not to take away from any of those outfits, they are indeed doing us proud, but there's a world beyond our shorelines that deserves our attention. Perhaps the appeal of the Herder is that so many people have a personal connection to the players/team. "That's me cousin Donny" or "Sure I used to play with the b'ys growin' up". But the style of hockey is a factor too. Granted they are some of the best players in the province, but the vast majority of them are slugging out a game based on heart and less on pure skill. It's a blue collar, work your guts out game and we, Newfoundlanders, are suckers for it. So what's the recipe for success? QMJHL or ECHL? Both ice a quality product, one that is complimentary with a market of this size. There's a fine building awaiting a tenant and one would hope the city of St. John's has learned from it's past leasing miscues. What's missing? How will they get bums in seats? I think the answer is culture. The team needs a strong brand. No, not the logo and pretty colours the team wears or the names on the jerseys but the buzz surrounding the spectacle. Make it Newfoundland's team, not St. John's. Develop a reputation as down in the trenches, fight to the death gladiators and Newfoundlanders will soon follow. Yes, they'll need skill. But as the past(AHL, QMJHL) has shown that will only get you so far in this marketplace. Newfoundlanders need a team they can relate to. One we are proud to say is Made Right Here!