City faces tough sell in AHL quest

Robin
Robin Short
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It certainly didn’t take long for the Binghamton Senators to react to reports out of St. John’s that this city is eager to cosy up to the Ottawa Senators now that a divorce is imminent with the Winnipeg Jets.

Responding to stories in The Telegram that Ottawa might be a suitor for St. John’s when the Jets take off from Newfoundland for good next year, Binghamton executive vice-president Tom Mitchell and Ottawa assistant general manager Randy Lee went before the Bingo microphones last week with the message that everything is just swell in that neck of the AHL woods.

Binghamton’s contract expires with Ottawa following the 2014-15 AHL season, which if nothing else makes for convenient timing here, given the Winnipeg-St. John’s deal closes at the same time.

“My president (Bryan Murray) has empowered me to talk to Tom,” Lee told reporters.

“They want to start negotiations on an extension right away.”

That could be lip service on behalf of Ottawa. Or it might not. Ottawa and Binghamton have a relationship dating back to 2002.

It wasn’t always chummy, but it’s worked. Bingo has developed players for the big club, and it helps that Ottawa’s only a few hours away. Too much has been read into the fact that Ottawa is one of the teams coming here for an NHL exhibition, against the New York Islanders.

Fact is, as Lee puts it, the Sens were approached by a promoter who wanted a couple of games. And St. John’s happened to be one of the cities which would take a pair of teams destined to finish out of the Stanley Cup playoffs. It’s not like Ottawa went seeking out St. John’s.

“That’s all it is,” Lee said. Truth is, Ottawa is no more or no less interested in setting up shop here than Montreal, the Islanders, New Jersey Devils or any one of a number of other NHL teams.

Not saying the Sens are writing off St. John’s. But it’s safe to say there’s certainly nothing on the table now. Look, this whole travel thing is nothing but a convenient argument, anyway. The number of times a player has to be summoned from the farm to the parent club in an emergency are rare.

Half the time either the NHL team or the AHL team is on the road, anyway.

Face it, regardless of the fan and corporate support St. John’s receives, this city is off the beaten path in the eyes of many NHL officials. We may as well be in Russia.

So, it’s going to take one heck of a sales job, and a lot of luck, to land another AHL franchise. Not to be a sourpuss about all this — hopefully it doesn’t overshadow this year’s Calder Cup playoff run, where I expect the IceCaps to go deep — but it’s not going to get any easier as we move forward. If the AHL ever decides to go further west — and western-based NHL teams have more than hinted they’d like to see it happen — that would leave more longtime AHL cities (i.e. the competition) vying for NHL partners, places like Worcester, Mass., and Manchester, N.H., if the Sharks and Kings ever left town

Not that it’s all doom and gloom. There is a faint hope. With the Sens and, especially, the Isles, money talks. Cash is king, and kings make the rules. Maybe the Islanders could be convinced to look at St. John’s, to bring the AHL team they own to Mile One instead of Uniondale, N.Y., their current home until their new digs at the Barclays Centre in Brooklyn is ready in 2015. But in order to make it happen, another pro team would have to replace New York’s AHL club in Bridgeport, Conn.

Maybe that team could be the Devils, moving a bit closer to home from Albany, where they currently reside, drawing flies. Maybe the New York Rangers, supposedly not thrilled with the way things are going in Hartford. But you see, that’s the problem.

There are way too many maybes, ifs and buts. Strangely enough, St. John’s best bet might rest with a city that doesn’t even have an NHL team. But Quebec City won’t be without one for long.

The NHL is said to be looking at Seattle and Las Vegas, but with a new $400-million rink going up in Quebec City, no one can convince me that city isn’t getting a team when the first sheet of ice is made. Nobody, not an individual or government (municipal, provincial or otherwise) would travel down the slippery, expensive slope without some form of backroom assurance that a team — be it relocation or expansion — is on the way.

And a new NHL team needs a farm team. But there is a quandary to that, too. This scenario won’t likely play out for at least a couple of years, leaving Mile One sitting empty after the Jets leave town (and make no mistake, they’re gone next year, regardless if there’s a rink in Thunder Bay or not).

And we’re not even certain Quebec City would fancy St. John’s as a minor league partner. Hard to believe NHL teams would overlook this city, with its a model franchise, dedicated fan following, committed corporate backing and first-class front office itching for another crack at the American Hockey League.

Even more hard to believe, however, is they probably don’t even care.

Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email rshort@thetelegram.com. Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort

IN SHORT

Just about every sport in Canada has a national Hall of Fame, except one — hockey. Yes, there is a Hockey Hall of Fame, but that’s run by the NHL people. I’m talking about a Canadian Hockey Hall of Fame, for Canadians who built and excelled in the game. For every Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr enshrined, there’d be a George Faulkner, or Forbes Kennedy over on P.E.I., or a Fabian Joseph of Nova Scotia, who played on the national team for years and years. Or a Don Johnson. Grass roots Canadian hockey people … There are umpteen minor basketball programs on the go across St. John’s and Mount Pearl and C.B.S., so why is there no minor basketball league, like the minor hockey and soccer leagues? … Those in the know suggest the Conception Bay North CeeBee Stars are done. Which is too bad for provincial senior hockey. That means it will be harder on the Mount Pearl H.J. Bartlett Electric Blades next season, who will face more travel. And considering the folks in that town aren’t exactly spinning the turnstiles at The Glacier supporting their senior hockey team, increased costs aren’t what the Blades need. Imagine if the Blades packed it in again? That would mean no senior A hockey on the east coast … Why does the hockey media across Canada and U.S. even bother reporting “upper body” and “lower body” injuries. So ridiculous. Just report “injured” and be done with it.

Organizations: American Hockey League, NHL, Jets New York Islanders New Jersey Devils IceCaps Barclays Centre Hockey Hall of Fame New York Rangers Don Johnson Conception Bay North CeeBee Stars Mount Pearl H.J. Bartlett Electric Blades The Glacier

Geographic location: Ottawa, Binghamton, Newfoundland Winnipeg Quebec City Montreal Russia Worcester, Mass. Manchester, N.H. Uniondale Brooklyn New York Bridgeport, Conn. Canada Albany Hartford Seattle Las Vegas Thunder Bay Nova Scotia Mount Pearl U.S.

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  • Glenn Stockley
    March 22, 2014 - 07:54

    There's an easy solution to this. Make them an offer they can't refuse. Put your money where your mouth is Danny.