The man who was general manager of the American Hockey League’s Maple Leafs for the greater part of that franchise’s tenure in St. John’s admits to being somewhat surprised at the re-establishment of the AHL in Newfoundland, but insists the Leafs should have never have left.
“It was inexcusable, deplorable and grossly unfair, but it still happened,” said Bill Watters, who was a special guest of the St. John’s IceCaps for the home-ice debut of the province’s new AHL team at Mile One Centre Friday night.
The Toronto Maple Leafs operated their AHL franchise here for 14 years, leasing the operations to the City of St. John’s. When the team first arrived, Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment’s majority owner was the late Steve Stavro, who Watters says revelled in the idea of having the Maple Leafs’ minor-league operations in Newfoundland.
But in 2003, Stavro sold his stake in MLSE, and Richard Peddie took over as chief executive officer. Around the same time, Watters left his job as the NHL team’s assistant general manager and two years later, the decision was made to move the Leafs’ AHL operations to Toronto’s Ricoh Coliseum, with a need to have the Leaf prospects closer to the home team cited as the main reason.
Watters, however, insists it was the result of a misgiuded business/marketing plan that ignored the benefits of a well-established relationship in St. John’s.
“Steve would have never betrayed Newfoundland like it was betrayed by the group that was running MLSE at that time,” said Watters.
“I remember when 9/11 came and we were here to witness what Newfoundlanders were doing to help and we had that (NHL exhibition) game at Mile One that raised all the money for charity. I remember Steve Stavro saying at the time he was so proud to be part of Newfoundland and everything it stood for and there was never any question of us leaving Newfoundland. That would have been betraying a loyalty, but loyalty disappeared the day Steve Stravro left the scene.”
And despite what he called MLSE’s “grandiose schemes”, Watters says the Marlies have been an unquestioned business failure.
“They will have more paid attendees at Friday and Saturday’s (IceCaps’ games at Mile One) than Ricoh has in its accumulation since (the Leafs) left Newfoundland,” he said. “That is a sad commentary on the egomaniacal marketing approach MLSE thinks it has.
“Just because they can market the Maple Leafs doesn’t mean they can market the Marlies.
“Anyone can market the Maple Leafs.”
As for the suggestion the Leafs may derive some benefit — either in salary-cap management or player-movement costs — by having their minor-league team close by, Watters doesn’t buy it.
“My economics don’t work that way,” he said. “When I was involved with the Maple Leafs, we had a very substantive fee we collected from the City of St. John’s and our losses above that fee did not exceed $500,000 and that was a reasonable cost of development.
“Today, it is my understanding those losses are in the $5 million to $6 million range in Toronto (with the Marlies). So tell me why, other than they wanted to be build a monolith to the wonderful marketing skills of the chief executive officer and all his minions, they moved the team from here?”
Still, once the Leafs left, Watters felt it would be almost impossibly difficult to get an AHL team back in St. John’s.
He recalls a couple of years ago and a conversation he had with Glenn Stanford, who ran the AHL Leafs in St. John’s and had had been doing behind-the-scenes work in an attempt to have the league return
“Glenn said, ‘I think we can make it work,’ and I said ‘But Glenn, what about that travel subsidy and all the other expenses that are fixed costs?’ At the time, I didn’t see how it could happen,” said Watters.
“But the fact that Glenn was able to convince (AHL president) Dave Andrews was key, and when Glenn (brought in) Danny Williams, that clinched it.
“But for me to suggest to you that there would be over 3,000 in the season-ticket bin, I would have said it was preposterous. The fact they have 5,000 is a credit to the people that run it, but more importantly, to the people that live it.
“I am so impressed that Newfoundland hockey fans have come back the way they have.”
Watters agrees the improved economic climate in the Newfoundland capital is a big factor — “There’s a different feeling around St. John’s now as compared to the last time I visited,” he notes — but says much of his now-positive feelings he has about the AHL comes from knowing who is involved, including the people running the Winnipeg Jets, the IceCaps’ franchise owner and NHL affiliate club.
“There’s a trust factor there, the sort of trust that was lost here where Steve Stavro went out of the picture. And the fact Danny’s at the wheel, with Glenn Stanford at his side, makes me feel real good about the future of this franchise, especially because they don’t have to deal with egomaniacal marketers who think they can reinvent the wheel.”
Ever since leaving his job the Maple Leafs, Watters has been prominent on the Toronto and national sports broadcasting scene. His work included Hockey Central on Rogers Sportsnet, where his exchanges with fellow panelist Nick Kypreos often proved fascinating. But in January of this year, the 68-year-old Watters and Sporstnet parted ways.
Then in July, his show on Radio 640, the Maple Leafs’ flagship station, was cancelled, although he has a year remaining on his contract with Corus Entertainment, the station’s owners.
Watters has been involved in sports all his life. He was a star wrestler and football player at the University of Toronto and was the second overall pick by the Toronto Argonauts in the 1964 CFL draft, although he chose not to play as a pro. Instead, he became a teacher, but soon found himself working as a scout, hockey player agent and on the management groups for various Canadian international hockey teams before joining the Leafs.
“I’ve always loved being around hockey, and its important for me to stay in touch with the game at some level,” said Watters. “I don’t know if I’ll be back in the radio and TV business. That will depend on supply and demand.
“But I have had a wonderful eight years and I think I’m ready for more.
“Somebody told me, ‘You better be ready to ride into the sunset.’ I told them I can still ride, but my direction isn’t taking me into the sunset yet.”