Word Wednesday that the St. John’s IceCaps will be sticking around Mile One Centre for another year was welcomed news for hockey fans in these parts, but you can also be certain there was a collective “phewww!” within the IceCaps’ management offices.
Oh sure, it’s only one more year in St. John’s for the Winnipeg Jets’ American Hockey League affiliate — the IceCaps will play under the Jets’ banner this season and next — but the real important point coming out of yesterday afternoon’s press gathering was the fact an extra year gives St. John’s more time to work a deal and cozy up with another NHL partner.
And they need all the time they can get.
True, as Glenn Stanford’s said more than once, things change in the AHL in the blink of an eye.
I mean, look how the chips fell into place three years ago which led to the Jets sending their minor leaguers here?
Despite the IceCaps’ selling out every home game since they arrived, the Jets announced early in the New Year the upcoming season would be the final one for their farm club in Newfoundland. Winnipeg and the City of Thunder Bay announced a consortium that includes True North Sports and Entertainment, owner of the Jets; former NHL coach Gary Green, a director of Stadium Consultants International and BBB Architects; and Lakehead University had been chosen as the event partner for construction of a $106 million facility that would include a 5,700-seat arena.
However, ground still has not been broken, and funding for the project — at the municipal and provincial levels — has become a political football.
It might be argued the Jets opted to re-up for another year not because they’re in love with the city — granted, Winnipeg likes how the IceCaps operation is run, and the fact St. John’s is a legitimate pro hockey market — but because the Jets had nowhere else to go.
Winnipeg, like most western-based NHL teams, is behind the idea to shift its farm team closer to home, further away from the U.S. Eastern seaboard.
A West Division within the AHL will in all likelihood be in place by the 2015-16 hockey season, giving Winnipeg a better idea of the lay of the AHL westward land during their final season in St. John’s.
A move west could spell the end for some AHL teams in the east, namely Manchester, N.H. (Los Angeles Kings), Worcester, Mass. (San Jose Sharks), Portland, Me. (Phoenix Coyotes) and Norfolk, Va. (Anaheim Ducks).
Ideally, the Kings would like their farmhands in Ontario, Calif., where the Jets currently have some players under contract in the ECHL.
Which maybe makes Wednesday’s announcement just a little more critical for St. John’s.
If the Kings and Sharks were to bring their minor leaguers closer to home, for example, that would effectively leave Manchester and Worcester in competition with St. John’s for an NHL partner.
If this move west happens in 2015-16, both those cities would sit idly by as St. John’s concluded its final year under the Jets’ umbrella.
And let’s face it, it’s easier to attract a team when the infrastructure — staff, etc. — is in place. It makes for a seamless transition.
Manchester and Worcester won’t have that luxury as those cities sit on the sidelines for a year.
Recent reports indicate the NHL is ready for expansion by 2017, and the cities most often mentioned are Quebec City, Las Vegas, Seattle and a second team in the Greater Toronto Arena (if it works in New York and L.A., it will work in Toronto).
St. John’s could make some very solid pitches to Toronto and Quebec City.
And if you consider the further possibility of relocation, Florida would be at the top of the list. Should the Panthers move north — and if I’m an owner, I’m looking at Canada based on the Jets’ overwhelming success — there’s a good chance the new city will not want its farmhands all the way in San Antonio, Tex., where the Rampage play under Florida’s colours.
This is all conjecture, of course, just as it is implying the Montreal Canadiens and New York Islanders could be NHL partners for St. John’s to fancy.
The Canadiens have been in Hamilton for years — Stanford ran the show there for a spell — and continue to draw flies.
Not to mention the team bleeds money.
Montreal has talked of building a rink for its AHL team in Laval, Que., but that remains — just like the Thunder Bay arena — little but a plan.
The Islanders are locked into a contract in Bridgeport, Conn., but have a yearly out clause if they wanted to exercise it.
Like Hamilton, the Sound Tigers aren’t exactly packing them in at their rink in downtrodden downtown Bridgeport.
What could be attractive to the Isles is the daily St. John’s-to-Newark, N.J. flight. That means a callup could leave St. John’s and be in Brooklyn — where the Islanders are headed — for the morning skate.
At this point, who really knows? Change is a constant within the AHL, and lots can happen, from year to year.
This much, however, we are convinced: the addition of a second year for St. John’s gives this place more to time to look for another deal, and gives potential suitors more time to see this city is a good place to do business if you happen to be in the pro hockey game.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email at email@example.com
Follow him on Twitter: @TelyRobinShort