Williams behind new AHL team for St. John’s

Different kind of Moose expected to be let loose in Mile One 

Robin Short rshort@thetelegram.com
Published on May 21, 2011
On April 16, 2005, a capacity crowd of 6,247 watch the St. John’s Maple Leafs play their last regular season home game at Mile One Stadium.— File photo

Six years after the Maple Leafs played their final American Hockey League game in St. John’s, the league is returning to the city for the 2011-12 hockey season.

The Telegram can confirm an announcement outlining the relocation of the Manitoba Moose franchise to Mile One Centre is set for 1 o’clock next Friday afternoon.

Ironically, the Maple Leafs franchise, which lasted 14 years at Memorial Stadium and Mile One, played its final game in Winnipeg on April 30, 2005, when the Moose eliminated St. John’s from the Calder Cup playoffs.

Sources indicate this transaction has been ongoing for some time, but has been contingent upon Winnipeg landing an NHL franchise.

With the Atlanta Thrashers’ relocation to Manitoba a done deal, only the official signing of papers is needed to complete the AHL transaction.

The Telegram has also learned the new St. John’s franchise will remain the property of Mark Chipman’s True North Sports and Entertainment for at least one year, at which time the team will be purchased by local ownership.

The prospective new owner is former premier Danny Williams.

It’s been Williams, vice-chairman of the initial St. John’s Maple Leafs’ board of directors, and Glenn Stanford, the team’s director of operations during its 14-year run, who have worked with Chipman and True North over the past several weeks spearheading the relocation deal.

Neither Williams nor Stanford were available for comment Friday.

Since 2001-02, when the Moose joined the AHL after five years in the old International Hockey League, Manitoba has been the primary farm team of the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks. However, with the transfer of the Atlanta franchise to Winnipeg, the new St. John’s club will be the farm team of the fledgling Winnipeg franchise, with the Canucks looking elsewhere for an AHL partner.

The Thrashers’ AHL affiliate had been the Chicago Wolves. Because Chicago owns the AHL franchise and not Atlanta, the minor league club is not part of the NHL transaction leaving the Wolves to find an NHL partner.

That partner could be the Canucks.

The arrival of the AHL club in St. John’s will make for a busy couple of months for Stanford, who will resign from his position as president and governor of the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs to assume a similar title with the as-yet-to-be-named St. John’s team.

September will mark the first time since spring 2008 that Mile One will have an anchor tenant. After the Toronto Maple Leafs, under then-general manager John Ferguson, moved their farm team closer to the parent club and Toronto’s Ricoh Centre, St. John’s landed a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League expansion franchise.

But the Fog Devils lasted only three years before owner Derm Dobbin sold the franchise to Montreal businessman and lawyer Farrel Miller, where it became known as the Junior de Montreal.

There was some discussion early in the new year about a return of the QMJHL to St. John’s, but a group looking to bring major junior hockey back to the city failed to secure a deal.

Until this week, the best hope for hockey at Mile One appeared to rest with the ECHL, an AA-tiered league a notch below the AHL.

The group had met with the ECHL’s board of governors, and league commissioner Brian McKenna was in St. John’s last month to visit the city and tour Mile One.

Next month, the group was to travel to Las Vegas where its application into the league for the 2012-13 season was to be voted on by the board.

However, amid mounting speculation about the AHL’s return to St. John’s, the ECHL group withdrew its bid this week.

The landscape of the AHL has certainly changed since 2004-05. Since then, the league has grow by two teams to 30, and has eight new franchises — Charlotte Checkers, Adirondack Phantoms, Lake Erie Monsters, Abbotsford Heat, Peoria Rivermen, Texas Stars, Oklahoma City Barons and Rockford IceHogs.

The Moose played in the Western Conference’s North Division last season. There’s a chance St. John’s could remain in the North, though a move to the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division seems more likely.

However, that will not happen in time for next season, when St. John’s will be lumped in with divisional rivals Hamilton, Lake Erie (Cleveland), Abbotsford, B.C., Grand Rapids Griffins, Rochester Americans and the Marlies, which should make for a hot ticket.

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