Former Baby Leafs’ captain credits time here in helping to mould his life
Nathan Dempsey, who knows a thing or two about playing hockey in St. John’s, says it would be a crying shame if the city is unable to land another American Hockey League franchise when the Winnipeg Jets pull the plug on their farm team in 2015.
Former St. John’s Maple Leafs player Nathan Dempsey. — Telegram file photo
“It would be an absolute shame, an absolute shame if they couldn’t find a team in the Eastern Conference that wanted to have their young kids developing in a situation that’s here in St. John’s.
“The way that it moulded not only myself, but others, not only as players, but as people, that’s the type of influence I would want on my young players if I was an NHL executive. It would just boggle me if that wasn’t to happen again.
“I understand with Winnipeg moving to the Western Conference that it’s probably very difficult for them to keep their guys here. But I’m sure there are a pile of teams in the East that would be looking for a real solid place to develop their players.”
The Jets and a group in Thunder Bay, Ont., are entering into a partnership that will see construction of a new arena in that city. As part of the plans, Winnipeg will move its AHL franchise from St. John’s to Thunder Bay.
The agreement keeping the AHL team in St. John’s expires at the end of the 2014-15 hockey season and even if the Thunder Bay rink is not complete by then — there hasn’t even been a sod-turning — word is the Jets will park their AHL team in Winnipeg for a year or two.
The reason for the move, says Winnipeg, has everything to do with the fact St. John’s is on the far east coast and the Jets were transferred to the NHL’s Western Conference this season. That can make for some difficult travel when recalling players.
Dempsey played eight seasons for the St. John’s Maple Leafs, and was team captain for a spell. He has the most career games of any AHL Leaf (508), and won the league’s Fred T. Hunt Award for sportsmanship, determination and dedication to hockey while in St. John’s.
Dempsey was up and down between St. John’s and Toronto for years, but finally got his break in 2002-03 when he played a full season with the Chicago Blackhawks.
He also suited up for the Los Angeles Kings and Boston Bruins, retiring with 260 career NHL games.
He’s in town as a guest of the St. John’s IceCaps for tonight’s Assante Wealth Management AHL All-Star Classic, the first time he’s been back to the city in 12 years.
“A key part of my life was spent here,” he said. “Our first child was born here, my wife had a blast when we lived here.
“Flying in here the other night, you could see the lights of the city and the memories really starting flooding back.
“When I was here, I couldn’t get my foot in the door with Toronto. And when I’d come back after being in Toronto for a game or two, people here would tell me what a crock of horse manure it was that I wasn’t in Toronto.
“For the people here to continually have my back like that was awesome.”
Unlike most American league cities, the IceCaps are playing before a full house nightly. The team garners close media attention, and if a player elects to take the night off, chances are he hears it from the fans.
“This city,” said Dempsey, “is as close as you can get to an NHL feeling in the minors. I’ve talked to players who would come in and out, and that was the thing they’d say, that is like the NHL, only shrunk down.
“You can’t tell me this is not a pro hockey town. No way.”