The commissioner of the ECHL likes the St. John’s hockey market, its healthy season-ticket base and potential for local sponsorship coin. He’s really keen on Mile One Centre, the 10-year-old, 5,800-seat, made-for-minor-pro-hockey rink.
Thing is, will St. John’s hockey fans be so enamoured with Brian McKenna’s pro circuit, a notch or two below the American Hockey League?
After 14 seasons of the AHL in St. John’s, and another three winters of the major junior brand, the lights have been dimmed at Mile One the past two years, save for a few concerts and trade shows, scrap hockey, general skating and the Herder.
Dan Crummell and a local group are looking to bring pro hockey back to St. John’s, in the form of the ECHL, the self-described premiere AA minor hockey circuit in North America. Early in the New Year, Crummell and another member of the local group, Gord Pittman, travelled to Bakersfield, Calif., and the ECHL's All-Star Classic for a sit-down with McKenna and break bread with the league’s board of governors.
On Friday, McKenna was in town for a meeting with the locals, and a walk-about of Mile One. And he was prepared sell the virtues of his 19-team league, with an opening for a 20th — on the east coast, no less.
“We’re very confident in our product,” said McKenna, the P.E.I.-born, New Brunswick-raised commish for the past nine years.
“Literally half of our players will play games in the American Hockey League over the course of a season.
“We’ve had 465 players who received their start in our league go on the to NHL so there’s no question the quality of play and the calibre of the player is very good.
“We’re not one step away from the NHL like the American league. We are two steps away. But a lot of our players do make those two steps.”
There are more than a few skeptics leery of the ECHL, the former East Coast Hockey League, a rough and tumble outfit that’s long since cleaned up its act. In fact, there are some who ridiculously compare the game to local senior hockey, though Montreal’s David Desharnais, Alexandre Burrows of Vancouver, Toronto’s James Reimer and Boston goalie Tim Thomas, who had a brief stint in ‘the Coast’ in 1997-98, might disagree.
Those who pine for the American league might yet still get their wish. There’s a chance, though remote, a team could return to St. John’s as early as next September, but it all depends on the whole Phoenix-Winnipeg NHL mess.
If the Coyotes return to Manitoba, and it’s sure looking that way, the AHL’s Moose will vamoose from Winnipeg.
It might launch a domino affect, with potentially two or even three AHL teams on the move.
AHL president Dave Andrews said a couple or three cities have expressed an interest in the AHL. One presumably is St. John’s. Two others he mentioned in passing on Sirius XM radio Friday were Wichita, Kan., and Tulsa, Okla.
“If an NHL team plays in Winnipeg,” Andrews said in Friday’s Globe and Mail, “the AHL team there will relocate. Whether it will relocate right away or will be placed on suspension for a year, I’m not sure.”
St. John’s might seem a longshot in the reconfiguration. It’s hard to imagine Vancouver — parent club of the Moose — agreeing to run the farm clear across the country. And even if the Moose trample into nearby Abbotsford, B.C., effectively kicking out the Flames’ farm club, the Abbotsford Heat, Calgary might not want to return this far east again, even though the Flames set up shop in Saint John, N.B., for years.
As for the potential NHL team in Winnipeg, would the new-look Jets want to maintain San Antonio as its AHL farm club, where Phoenix has toiled?
Clear as mud, right?
So, considering a return of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is more deader by the day, the only sure thing might be the ECHL.
St. John’s has one more meeting before the ECHL’s board of governors convene in June in Las Vegas, at which time a formal vote will be conducted.
Before that happens, however, St. John’s must have a lease in place with Mile One for the 2012-13 hockey season, deposits on at least 1,500 season tickets, $100,000 down payment on the $475,000 U.S. franchise fee and a $10,000 non-refundable application fee.
Despite the 14 seasons St. John’s housed an AHL club, a model franchise by all accounts, McKenna said the ECHL’s board considered the city somewhat of an unknown commodity.
“The went into the meeting quite skeptical, but now they’re more open-minded,” he said of his bosses. “The St. John’s guys had a great presentation, telling us about ownership group, the city and the arena.
“We’re not in a position to handicap St. John’s chances, but our guys have kept an open mind and are optimistic if certain conditions are met, there’s a pretty realistic chance this could happen.”
So barring any major surprise, odds are real good pro hockey will return to St. John’s in 2012.
Question now is whether the AHL can beat the ECHL to the punch.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. Her can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org