Players’ experience during team’s first year in St. John’s should generate positive chatter on hockey grapevine
It was an afternoon of farewells and goodbyes for members of the St. John’s IceCaps on Wednesday as they cleaned out their lockers, did end-of-the-season duties and held exit meetings with coaches and managers at Mile One Centre. Here IceCaps’ goalie Eddie Pasquale carries the gear and sticks he will use in the off-season . The IceCaps were eliminated from the American Hockey League's Calder Cup playoffs with a 4-0 loss to the Norfolk Admirals Tuesday night at Mile One. — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram
Those six thousand-plus fans who stood and cheered in the final minutes of the St. John’s IceCaps’ season-ending loss to the Norfolk Admirals Tuesday night at Mile One Centre may have been doing so in appreciation for the home team’s performance in its first season in St. John’s. However, they might also be doing themselves an indirect favour, at least in efforts to secure a similarily competitive club next season and beyond.
“That group of fans here ... that’s pretty special,” said Craig Heisinger, who has general manager of the Winnipeg Jets’ farm team, is very much responsible for assembling its roster.
“That was similar, eerily similar to the end of the season in Winnipeg, although this was a playoff series and the Winnipeg situation was not. But it’s hard to articulate how special those fans are to do what they did.”
Heisinger agreed the fan support, whether gauged by the noise generated Tuesday as the tide went out on the season, or in numbers, as in the 46 straight sellouts for home games at Mile One this season, will be well noted on the hockey grapevine, but he also pointed out the St. John’s experience involves even more.
“The fans are one thing in that regard and the way the organization treats people is another,” said Heisinger. “They both go a long way. In some organizations, there might be that great fan support, but they do the little things right and that certainly helps, but here there seems to a complete package.
“I guarantee you, players call other players, asking ‘How was it in St. John’s?’ and when players speak highly of your organization and how the little things get done, that makes all the difference.”
IceCaps’ captain Jason Jaffray noted the “hockey world is a small world.
“Definitely, there’s going to be a lot of good things coming out about St. John’s this year,” said Jaffray. “Years ago, maybe there were a lot of players who didn’t want to come this way. But Danny (Williams) and Glen (Stanford) have treated us really well and with Craig Heisinger as the GM, you know you’re going to get a competitive team every year and Keith did an incredible in his first year behind the bench. And then you have those fans.
“You ask anyone on this team and you won’t find a single player who will have a bad word to say about the city, the organization or anything that went on this season and that sort of thing gets around.”
Williams said during the season, he frequently heard players on visiting teams comment positively about what they found here and also related a story of how the spouse of one of the players approached him at an airport and thanked him for the experience she and her partner had during the season.
“I think the players are respected and loved throughout the whole city and I think, reciprocally, they’ve given it back to us,” said Williams, the team president.
McCambridge had some idea of the how the AHL would be received here, having played with the Sant John Flames and Providence Bruins against the St. John’s Maple Leafs
“I saw it at old Memorial Stadium — the support and how loud the crowd can get — as a player, but as my first time in here as a coach and at Mile One, to see a sold-out building on a Tuesday night in November is outstanding,” he said,
“I played a long time professionally, and a long time in the American league, and to see these sold-out crowds and the excitement and support that we got this season ... really is the reason why this team was put in Newfoundland and Labrador.”
The IceCaps came about after the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers were purchased by True North Sports and Entertainment last summer and moved to Winnipeg to become the Jets. That forced True North, which owned the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, to seek out a new home for that minor-league team, which would become the farm team for the Jets.
“I can’t tell you we had a tonne of options,” said Heisinger in a spirit of full disclosure. “But certainly, getting into bed with people you know makes a tremendous amount of difference.”
The latter was very much in reference to Stanford, the IceCaps’ chief operating officer. He had similar duties with the AHL Leafs and was president of the Hamilton Bulldogs before returning home to help launch the IceCaps. In those previous capacities, he had built up a strong business and personal relationship with Heisinger and True North chairman Mark Chipman.
In fact, Heisinger seemed to suggest that even if the Jets had reasonable possibilities of moving the Moose nearer to the team’s former Manitoba home, St. John’s would have still been a preferred landing spot.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Planes fix geographical problems, but if you have trouble with people and relationships, that’s hard to fix,” he said.