ECHL highly interested in St. John's, but won't come until 2012
© The Associated Press
Kory Falite of the Alaska Aces redirects a pass at Victoria's Salmon Kings' goaltender David Shantz during a recent ECHL game in Anchorage, Alaska. The ECHL likes the idea of expanding its current 19-team operation into St. John's.
The ECHL’s board of governors is “very interested” with the prospects of expanding to Canada’s East Coast, but if St. John’s is to be home to the pro hockey league that’s two notches below the NHL, it won’t be until the 2012-13 season.
“They think there’s a great opportunity in St. John’s,” said Dan Crummell of the capital city, who attended the ECHL’s All-Star Classic and board of governors meetings in Bakersfield, Calif., this week.
“Talking to the league commissioner (Brian McKenna) and the board of governors, they all want to come to Newfoundland.”
Crummell and Gord Pittman of Clarenville, who also maintains a residence in Ottawa, represented the potential St. John’s ownership group in Bakersfield. There are others involved in the group, but Crummell did no want to reveal those names until all are briefed on the meetings this weekend or early next week.
Crummell and Pittman left California Thursday morning.
Mile One Centre has been without an anchor tenant since 2008 when the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Fog Devils left St. John’s after three seasons.
Prior to that, the American Hockey League’s Maple Leafs called St. John’s home for 14 years.
Crummell and his group have been working on the ECHL project — a league which dubs itself as North America’s premier AA minor hockey circuit — for a month or two. The league currently has 19 teams, in Eastern and Western Conferences. Only one team, the Victoria, B.C., Salmon Kings, are based in Canada.
The St. John’s group had hoped to have things in place for a September, 2011 debut, but Crummell said those plans were nixed by the league’s board.
The reason, he said, simply came down to the fact the board did not want to rush into things.
“Their past experience has showed that teams that were rushed into the league did not meet with great success,” he said. “They want to ensure every detail is worked out before a team hits the ice.”
McKenna, a P.E.I. native who was vice-president and general manager of the Carolina Monarchs when that club was part of the AHL, is expected to visit St. John’s and tour Mile One Centre within the next week or two. The St. John’s group will meet with the board again in Las Vegas in June, at which time a formal vote on St. John’s will be conducted.
But before that happens, the St. John’s group must first have a lease in place for Mile One Centre and deposits in place on at least 1,500 season tickets.
In Vegas, the group will have to play $100,000 on the $475,000 U.S. franchise fee — or membership, as the league calls it — and a $10,000 non-refundable application fee.
Crummell maintains the money is in place.
The ECHL isn’t the only hockey league looking to call Mile One Centre home. A local group is hot after the QMJHL again — specifically buying and transferring the Acadie-Bathurst Titan to St. John’s — and there is still some kicking of the tires for another AHL franchise for St. John’s.
And Mile One isn’t said to be playing favourites. Rather, the first in through the doors with a team looking for a home gets first dibs.
“The only thing we believe is standing in our way is the AHL or the Q,” Crummell said, “and we understand that.
“If the Q shows up tomorrow or next week or next month looking to go next season, we’re dead in the water. We fully accept that.”
For now, the ECHL group will wait a few weeks to see what shakes out on the other two hockey fronts. The group has a self-imposed deadline of April to have things in place before meeting with the ECHL’s board in Vegas.
“All indications are very positive,” Crummell said.
Teams in the ECHL only play within their conference. The Cincinnati Cyclones of the East, for example, could only meet the Western Conference’s Alaska Aces if they played in the final.
“We actually met with the Alaska people,” Crummell said. “In terms of travel and everything else, they are almost identical to our business model.”
One of the questions the board did have of the St. John’s group was about how familiar Newfoundland — and eastern Canada, for that matter — was of the ECHL.
When it was known as the East Coast Hockey League, the league was a rough and tumble operation. But with the dissolving of the International Hockey League and other low-level minor pro leagues, the ECHL has seen its skill level increased substantially. The NHL featured 79 graduates of the ECHL on its 2010-11 opening-day rosters.
Among the more popular players to play in the ECHL are Boston’s Michael Ryder and Alexandre Burrows of the Vancouver Canucks.
The league, however, is best known for grooming goalies. Among the NHL puckstops this year who have appeared in the ECHL are Tim Thomas (Boston), Jonathan Quick (Los Angeles), Jaroslav Halak (St. Louis), Alex Auld (Montreal), Johan Hedberg (New Jersey), Martin Biron (New York Rangers), Jason LaBarbera (Phoenix) and Mike Smith (Tampa Bay).
“This is a very well-run operation,” Crummell said of the ECHL. “We’re not talking about a Mickey Mouse outfit.
“This league is for real. These guys are 21- and 22-year-old kids right out of university or junior who still want to pursue a pro career. It definitely not amateur senior hockey ... not even close.”
The ECHL All-Stars beat the Bakersfield Condors 9-3 in the 19th all-star game Wednesday. Mark Arcobello, an All-American and All-Ivy League player at Yale, scored three goals for the All-Stars. Chris Langkow, who enjoyed a five-year junior hockey career in Spokane and Saskatoon, had two goals along with Ryan Ginand, who was a Hockey East conference all-star while attending Northeastern University.