They sold out every game at Mile One Centre last fall, winter and spring, jockeyed for first place overall for much of the season and played for the American Hockey League’s Eastern Conference championship.
And along the way they had a nightly 50-50 draw that would make a few NHL teams green with envy.
It was quite a first year for the St. John’s IceCaps. So the question remains: what now for an encore?
“One of the better things that happened to us, ironically enough,” IceCaps’ CEO Danny Williams was saying this week, “was that we didn’t win the Calder Cup this year.
“Now fans have had a taste of it, realized we can be in the game. Zinger (St. John’s general manager Craig Heisinger) said before he left St. John’s, ‘You guys delivered down here for us, and we will continue to deliver a good, competitive team.’”
Williams won’t go so far as to say all that’s left now is a league championship, but it’s hard to top an inaugural season that the IceCaps enjoyed in 2011-12.
Sunday marks the first year anniversary, as it were, of the American Hockey League unanimously approving St. John’s as the league’s newest member.
It marked a return of the pro game to St. John’s, after the Toronto Maple Leafs opted to relocate their AHL affiliate from St. John’s to Toronto following the 2004-05 hockey season, ending 14 years of professional hockey in Newfoundland.
The IceCaps weren’t a new team, but rather the former Manitoba Moose. The Moose needed a new home after Winnipeg landed an NHL team with the relocation of the former Atlanta Thrashers, and St. John’s became the primary minor league affiliate of the new Winnipeg Jets.
Just as the NHL was welcomed back to Winnipeg, the American league received a similar embrace in St. John’s.
Thirty-eight straight sellouts during the regular season. Another eight in the post season.
“If you had asked me last summer,” said chief operating officer Glenn Stanford, “I wouldn’t have told you we’d have 46 sellouts.”
“One thing that was really apparent to me was the success in Winnipeg,” Williams said. “Here we are, affiliated with Winnipeg, which just brought a team back home, we just brought a team back home, and they’re sold out in minutes.
“When I combined that with what I perceive to be a strong marketplace in St. John’s, an economy that’s booming coupled with an appetite for professional sports and entertainment, I thought we had the perfect combination here to ride the Winnipeg wave and just drive it. And that’s what we did.
“That and providing the service and workforce behind it to make it happen and keep it going. Of course, the corporate sponsors stepping up was significant.”
On the ice, the IceCaps won their first two games on the road in Providence, R.I. and Manchester, N.H., but St. John’s dropped its home opener, 4-0 to the Hamilton Bulldogs.
And while the team had trouble pulling off series sweeps at home through the first half of the season, an impressive road record — the IceCaps came up short by one victory of establishing a new league record of 16 straight victories away from home — kept St. John’s in the hunt for first place overall for much of the year.
And that despite a steady parade of call-ups and visits to the disabled list (during one game in March, against the Admirals in Norfolk, Va., the IceCaps were without the services of Spencer Machacek, Jason King, Marco Rosa, Eddie Pasquale, Paul Postma, Brett Festerling, Derek Meech, Maxime Macenauer, Ben Maxwell and Jason Jaffray).
Then there was the play of goaltender Eddie Pasquale, who arrived at training camp pegged in the No. 3 spot behind NHL veteran David Aebischer and Peter Mannino, but eventually took over the No. 1 job and was named the AHL’s top rookie goaltender with a 21-11-1 record, 2.36 goals against average and .913 save percentage.
Pasquale became a fan favourite at Mile One, with chants of “Eddie! Eddie! Eddie!” regularly raining down from the seats during the post season.
“It’s been a script you couldn’t write any better, really,” Stanford said of the first year.
“You can talk about the individual players, but collectively, when you look at this team, there were games we were trailing 3-1 and 3-0 and came back and won. Nobody left the building when we were down because they knew this team worked hard and was able to come back. This team just competed and competed all season.”
The run came to an end earlier this month when St. John’s was swept by the charging Admirals, who have lost only three times in their last 45 games.
“We might not ever see a streak like that again,” Stanford said.
“What they have accomplished this year has been absolutely amazing, when you consider the string during the regular season (an AHL and NHL record 28-game win streak) with injuries and call-ups just like everyone else.
“Hats off to them.”
The Admirals are poised to win the Calder Cup tonight in Toronto, taking a 3-0 series lead into Ricoh Coliseum against the Toronto Marlies.
The Marlies used to be the St. John’s Maple Leafs and if not for the Admirals, an all-Canadian American league final between St. John’s and Toronto would have made for some delicious storylines.
“There’s only one way I wanted a Toronto-St. John’s final, and that was providing we won it,” Williams said. “I’d hate to play and lose.
“Imagine losing to Toronto in a Calder Cup final? I can’t think of anything worse, to be quite honest.”
Stanford said the key to any business is improvement and growth, so the IceCaps won’t be sitting back and reflecting on the wonderful 2011-12 season next year. Rather, there will be improvements in game operations and community initiatives, and hopefully Mile One will be outfitted with a new scoreclock.
As for ticket sales, Stanford said things are looking even better for next season, as a number of season-ticket holders have expressed a desire for additional tickets. But Stanford added that management will still offer 10-game packages next season, and the IceCaps will still make available 300 to 400 tickets for single game purchases.
Meantime, the IceCaps are going into Year 2 of a three-year agreement with the Jets, and Williams hopes to broach the subject of adding time to that deal at AHL meetings this summer.
“I think Winnipeg is quite open, certainly, to the option year and hopefully to an extension,” he said. “I certainly don’t think we’re finishing up after three years, not by a longshot.
“I think we have a perfect partnership right now.”