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BRENDAN McCARTHY: Faceoff over Mile One: Local group seeks ECHL franchise for St. John’s

The Canadian Press
The Canadian Press

The day after Edge ownership outlines its plans to acquire a QMJHL team, Dean MacDonald confirms he’s been working on getting a minor pro club for city

Mile One Centre in St. John’s may be without a hockey tenant this winter, but the facility has become a faceoff dot for two groups looking to change that status.

On Thursday, John Graham, speaking for the ownership group of the National Basketball League’s St. John’s Edge, restated their desire to own a hockey team that would play out of Mile One, saying they are focused on the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

On Friday, a group headed by St. John’s businessman Dean MacDonald revealed it had begun the process of acquiring an ECHL franchise for St. John’s, one that would hit the Mile One ice in 2018-19 if their efforts are successful.

If the American Hockey League, which had teams in St. John’s for two decades, is considered “AAA,” or the highest rung of minor-league hockey, the ECHL, formerly known as the East Coast Hockey League, is seen as a “AA” circuit.

Nevertheless, MacDonald believes fans here would take to the brand.

He has.

“I have been a big fan the East Coast league for a while,” said MacDonald, who has a home in Naples, Fla., home of the ECHL’s Florida Everblades.

“It’s really, really fun, exciting league, and with the (AHL’s) IceCaps moving, I felt they’re was an opportunity. I began working on it and I recently reached out to Glenn a little while ago and asked him if we could partner to bring (the ECHL) in.”

That would be Glenn Stanford, the former chief operating officer of the St. John’s IceCaps, whose run in the AHL ended earlier this year when the Montreal Canadiens moved the franchise to Laval, Que. Interestingly, Stanford had also been working as a contracted consultant for the Edge, helping the new pro basketball team get established in St. John’s.

MacDonald wouldn’t specify whether the plan was to start a brand-new ECHL team or acquire an existing one, although he did say that the acquisition wouldn’t involve the Everblades.

However, he added that his group would own the franchise outright, something that was never the case with AHL clubs in St. John’s, which were owned over the years by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets and Canadiens.

“St. John’s has had a great history with the AHL, but whenever (NHL) teams wanted to move their farm club closer to them, we ended up losing our teams,” said MacDonald.

“In this case, we’ll own it and it won’t go anywhere.”

ECHL teams have affiliations with National Hockey League teams, although most are not as firm as those with AHL teams.

“We can’t say who we’re affiliated with, other to say there is an NHL club involved and it will be pretty exciting for the city,” said MacDonald, who has begun the ECHL’s  formal application process.

Dean MacDonald
Dean MacDonald

“The league is excited. They know it is a great hockey town. The next phase for us is to get confirmation from the (City of St. John’s) is that we’re good to go, and on that basis, we’ll start working having a club here next season.”

Seven cities that operated in the AHL while the St. John's Maple Leafs and IceCaps played are now home to ECHL franchises — Portand, Me., Worcester, Mass., Norfolk, Va., Glens Falls, N.Y. (Adirondack), Cincinnati, Ohio, Manchester, N.H., and Salt Lake City (Utah).

But here’s a big question. The lease agreement reached earlier this year that put the Edge in city-operated Mile One included a clause providing the owners of the basketball team with 18 months of exclusivity when it came to bringing a hockey team to the building.

MacDonald didn’t detail how his group plans to get around that issue, but doesn’t seem too concerned.

“We’ve reached out to the city. I think any other commitments the city has is for the city to comment on,” said MacDonald, adding he believes they are operating under “a city-imposed timeline.”
MacDonald is the executive chairman of Tuckamore Capital, but has been known informally in the past as the right-hand man of former Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams, who also operated the IceCaps.

However, MacDonald says Williams is not part of the ECHL venture.

“No connection whatsoever,” he said. “Danny has some very significant projects on the way and he has his plate full.

“He’s aware we’re doing this and I am sure he hopes we’re successful, but he’s not involved.”

On Friday, Graham said he already knew about the ECHL bid.

“I only recently became aware that a group has surfaced. It was brought to our attention that there is an effort to bring an ECHL team to St. John’s has been ongoing,” said Graham, who on Thursday has stated that his group felt, that for St. John’s, the QMJHL represented the “next best thing” to the AHL

Graham chose not to comment on the exclusivity clause or how he saw it being applied, only that it was a matter that needed to be dealt with on the city side.

He did say there were no immediate plans for the Edge ownership to change or expedite its work to bring a hockey team to St. John’s, which Graham has said is part of a broader and long-term vision that could also include a pro soccer or football team and associated sports academies.

brendan.mccarthy@thetelegram.com

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