The gleam was in his eye on a chilly afternoon yesterday, at the foot of the steps leading to the rink he named 10 years ago.
At times, Danny Williams tried to remain stoic, but you knew he was all giddy inside.
Six years after the Toronto Maple Leafs took their farm team and went home, St. John’s was back in the pro game. And Williams, the erstwhile premier, former vice-chairman of the Maple Leafs’ board of directors, hockey fan and hockey player, was positively beside himself.
“I love hockey,” he was saying after a news conference outside Mile One Centre Wednesday, where another St. John’s hockey team will begin play in the American Hockey League beginning next season. “It goes way, way back, back back to the Caps, to the junior league, to peewee hockey.
“It’s been part of my life and and I, quite frankly, owe a lot of my success to hockey. I learned life lessons through the sport, met a lot of people through hockey, built relationships through hockey.”
Of course, the deal with True North Sports and Entertainment to bring Winnipeg’s farm club here next fall, and the agreement to lease Mile One, are tentative, subject to approval with the AHL’s board of governors and St. John’s city council.
Mere formalities. Fait accompli.
Kind of like this whole AHL-returns-to-St. John’s thing that started a couple of weeks ago.
Oh sure, things looked bleak at times. Turns out the government’s nixing of a $500,000 prop up, to help get a grip on the travel costs, was but a mere fly in the ointment.
With Winnipeg committed to St. John’s, and Williams driving the deal, there was no doubt it was getting done.
It was just a matter of when.
Williams probably hasn’t been this excited since the day he moved into the eighth floor on the hill. Truth be told, he’s probably more exhilarated running a pro hockey team than he ever was as premier.
This, he says, will be fun.
Because deep down, he’s a hockey player. He may be happiest on a sheet of ice, with a stick and puck.
“This is a whole revival for me,” he said. “The life is back in my face and my eyes. I feel really good about it.”
In the years since 2005, when the Leafs hit the road, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League came and went, and Mile One went dark.
There were rumblings of another QMJHL team for the city, but nothing concrete. Until early in the New Year, when a group talking to the ECHL came into play.
All along, Glenn Stanford, the man who quietly brokered this AHL deal, was planting seeds, throwing feelers out there while doing his day job, as the president and governor of the Hamilton Bulldogs.
"It’s been part of my life and and I, quite frankly, owe a lot of my success to hockey. I learned life lessons through the sport, met a lot of people through hockey, built relationships through hockey." Danny Williams
And back in St. John’s, waiting for the right opportunity, was Williams.
The two, Stanford and Williams, thought they had an opening when it looked like Jim Balsillie was about to take the Coyotes from Phoenix and bring them to Hamilton. From there, the AHL’s Bulldogs would relocate to St. John’s.
We all know what happened to Balsillie’s quest.
Back to square one.
Out west, Winnipeg’s True North Sports and Entertainment was staying patient, not about to make the same mistake the bombastic Balsillie did, annoying Gary Bettman to no end.
When it became evident Winnipeg was becoming a player in the Phoenix (and later Atlanta) relocation picture, Stanford moved. Casual chats escalated into negotiations.
An agreement, in fact, had been consummated for some time, but because there was nothing official on the Atlanta-to-Winnipeg front, St. John’s was in a holding pattern.
“We’ve been going intensely the past three or four months,” Williams admitted. “I’ve been looking at this for some time. And when the opportunity came, we went at it hard.
“This was probably our last shot at an AHL franchise.”
So what’s next?
A ton of work. Staffing. Ticketing. Sponsorship. Then there’s the hockey-related stuff.
Stanford will be stepping down from his job with the Bulldogs and coming home, spearheading the new AHL club in the same fashion he ran the Maple Leafs, a model minor pro hockey franchise, for 14 years.
The team will adopt the same colours as the parent club, but won’t be nicknamed the Moose, even if Winnipeg keeps the moniker (personal choice from this corner? Newfoundland Regiment).
Williams sidesteps questions about eventually purchasing the team from True North.
For now, he’s satisfied leasing the club. He’ll still be the boss.
Newfoundland’s Harold Ballard.
“That’s not a good one,” says the Toronto fan with a big grin. “Can we do better than that?”
How about Steinbrenner?
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org