OTTAWA — Everyone agrees, it seems, St. John’s is a very, very good minor pro hockey market, a “mini NHL rink” as one hockey executive dubbed Mile One Centre Thursday morning as the Senators practised in Ottawa.
In their brief history, the IceCaps have become, in many ways, the envy of most American Hockey League centres — sellout crowds, pacesetters in corporate backing and revenue, merchandise sales through the roof.
But is that enough to ensure a viable American league franchise in St. John’s for years to come?
Even around NHL arenas, hockey people — like Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper, a big fan of St. John’s having come through numerous times with the Norfolk Admirals/Syracuse Crunch — are well aware the clock is ticking on the IceCaps, when the lease with the parent Winnipeg Jets runs out the end of next season.
The Jets, of course, announced last week an agreement with a group headed by former NHL coach and broadcaster Gary Green to partner in a Thunder Bay, Ont. arena deal, which would see Winnipeg move its farm club from St. John’s to northern Ontario.
Now, the boss — one Danny Williams, the IceCaps’ president and CEO, who may be admired as much in this town as he is back home — is fairly confident the AHL will survive in St. John’s sans Winnipeg.
Williams has even said he’d buy a franchise, if that’s what it takes, knowing the value — from both an economic and social standpoint — it brings to the city and province.
St. John’s is good for the AHL, he says, harkening back to our earlier point of the spinning turnstiles and burgeoning support.
All well and good, but Williams and chief lieutenant Glenn Stanford will have to a) find a franchise for sale and b) convince an NHL team to climb on board as a parent club.
Lot easier said than done.
So what are the options?
The Senators, it is believed, would make a nice fit for St. John’s. Ottawa’s contract with Binghamton, N.Y. ends after the 2014-15 season — like St. John’s and Winnipeg’s deal — and the nation’s capital is fairly accessible with flights from St. John’s.
It helps the Sens, unlike the Jets, play in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.
But before St. John’s hockey fans run out and start buying Jason Spezza jerseys, consider this: nobody here in this town has heard of any such talk, Ottawa and Bingo have a relationship dating back 12 years, and the cities are separated by a four-hour drive.
That close proximity — which is and always will be the stumbling block with St. John’s — came to light in early December when Ottawa suffered an injury in practice. The call was placed to Bingo and Cody Ceci was dispatched to Ottawa pronto, without so much time as to call his parents with the news.
Ceci reached Canadian Tire Centre in time for the game against Buffalo, played and has been in the lineup ever since.
Don’t think, either, the fading Canadian dollar has an impact on Canadian teams operating in U.S. markets. That’s because salaries are paid in U.S. currency anyway, and any expenses incurred by the AHL Senators are paid for by Binghamton.
The Montreal Canadiens’ farm club has been drawing spit at Copps Coliseum — has been for years — as the Hamilton Bulldogs, but the storyline surrounding that team remains unchanged — it’s eventually destined for Laval, Que., when a new rink in that city is built.
Whenever that is.
Even before the Winnipeg Jets emerged a couple of years ago, the New York Islanders were mentioned — perhaps in passing — as a suitor for St. John’s.
But the Isles remain in Bridgeport, Conn., and even if New York is exploring options for its farm team, word is the team could move the AHL club to Nassau County Coliseum when the Islanders vacate that rink for Brooklyn, N.Y. in 2015-16.
New Jersey could also be a fit for St. John’s, considering the Devils’ farm club in Albany, N.Y. is drawing only 3,000 fans per game. Helps, too, there’s a daily flight between Newfoundland and Newark.
But with the Philadelphia Flyers leaving Glens Falls when a new rink in Allentown, Pa., is constructed, that city in the Adirondack region of upstate New York will be looking for a team, making nearby New Jersey a nice fit.
Some teams — not saying Jersey is one of them — don’t care about the farmhands playing before big crowds. They just want the players handy in case of emergency.
So what’s left after that? Not a lot. Hershey’s been around forever, and not going anywhere. Syracuse is also dug in. Providence and Boston have been partners forever and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Pittsburgh are only hours apart. And there’s no way any of the west coast NHL teams — Vancouver, L.A., San Jose, etc. — will even consider Newfoundland.
So there are not, at this time, a lot of options.
Not to say all is lost.
With an NHL-calibre rink going up in Quebec City, there’s a chance the NHL could be considering expansion sooner rather than later, and that/those team(s) would need a farm club.
A team in the east, namely Quebec City, might find St. John’s attractive.
Then there’s the possibility Winnipeg could last longer than expected. Funding for that Thunder Bay arena project isn’t carved in stone, and quibbling over who’s paying the bills can tend to be a show-stopper.
The Jets could move their minor league team to Winnipeg, as has been suggested, but should be mindful — as they probably are — of the prospect of cannibalizing their own product, which can happen when a farm club plays in the same city as its parent team (Philadelphia, years ago, being the exception).
Ultimately, anything can happen, but everyone seems to agree the league sees the value in a franchise in St. John’s, and the tandem of Stanford, with his array of contacts, and Williams, given his track record of getting things done, provide a beacon of hope for St. John’s and the future of American league hockey.
Now they just need to get something done.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort