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St. John’s is back on the ice, this time in the ECHL

Manchester Monarchs centre Matt Leitner (17) and Tommy Schutt of the Norfolk Admirals prepare for the opening faceoff in an ECHL game in Manchester, N.H., earlier this season. The ECHL announced Tuesday that it has formally approved an expansion franchise for St. John’s, which becomes the latest ex-AHL city — Manchester and Norfolk are two others — to join the minor-league circuit. — Manchester Monarchs/Dave Hilton/Facebook @Monarchs Hockey
Manchester Monarchs centre Matt Leitner (17) and Tommy Schutt of the Norfolk Admirals prepare for the opening faceoff in an ECHL game in Manchester, N.H., earlier this season. The ECHL announced Tuesday that it has formally approved an expansion franchise for St. John’s, which becomes the latest ex-AHL city — Manchester and Norfolk are two others — to join the minor-league circuit. — Manchester Monarchs/Dave Hilton/Facebook @Monarchs Hockey

League president says ‘It’s a calibre of hockey people will grow to appreciate’

After 20 years of American Hockey League play in St. John’s, sandwiched by three seasons in which the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League featured a team in the province’s capital, the city is now branching out into a new level of minor professional hockey — the ECHL.

The league made official Tuesday what was known for some time, that St. John’s will ice an expansion team in the ECHL and begin play out of Mile One Centre in the 2018-19 season.

“St. John’s has had a long, successful tradition of hockey,” league commissioner Brian McKenna told The Telegram. “It has a solid fan base, solid corporate support and an ideal arena.

“On top of that, Dean (MacDonald) is a very qualified owner, and the icing on the cake of us is Glenn Stanford, giving his background in hockey. We certainly know him from Boise (where Stanford ran an ECHL team in Idaho for two years). He brings a lot of credibility.”

The yet-to-be named St. John’s team will play, as reported in The Telegram Monday, in the Eastern Conference’s North Division with the Adirondack Thunder, Brampton Beast, Maine Mariners, Manchester Monarchs, Reading Royals and Worcester Railers.

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The Mariners, who will be based in Portland, Me., are also joining the league in the fall.

St. John’s will also be affiliated with the Toronto Maple Leafs, which was first reported in The Telegram back in January.

With St. John’s and Maine being added to roster, it will make for nine former AHL locations in the ECHL — which touts itself as North America’s premier AA hockey league — joining Adirondack, Manchester, Worcester, Norfolk, Va., Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Salt Lake City.

There would have been a 10th, but the Quad City Mallards (Moline, Ill.) have indicated they are withdrawing their ECHL membership at the conclusion of the current season.

The Colorado Eagles are also not returning next season as they will be moving to the AHL to become the chief affiliate of the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche. The Eagles play out of Loveland, Co., just north of Denver.

McKenna said Stanford and MacDonald made an “impressive” presentation to the ECHL’s board of governors during the league’s all-star weekend in January in Indianapolis.

The vote to accept St. John’s, he said, was unanimous.

St. John’s native Nathan Noel (16) is shown playing with the ECHL’s Indy Fuel in a game against the Wheeling Nailers earlier this season. Noel, a rookie pro prospect with the Chicago Blackhawks organization is now with the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs. He is one of a half dozen Newfoundlanders who have skated in the ECHL over the last couple of seasons, including the likes of defencemen Cody Donaghey and James Melindy, who are currently in the circuit, and Zach O’Brien, Alex Wall and Clark Bishop, who have moved on or up to other leagues. — Indy Fuel/Facebook
St. John’s native Nathan Noel (16) is shown playing with the ECHL’s Indy Fuel in a game against the Wheeling Nailers earlier this season. Noel, a rookie pro prospect with the Chicago Blackhawks organization is now with the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs. He is one of a half dozen Newfoundlanders who have skated in the ECHL over the last couple of seasons, including the likes of defencemen Cody Donaghey and James Melindy, who are currently in the circuit, and Zach O’Brien, Alex Wall and Clark Bishop, who have moved on or up to other leagues. — Indy Fuel/Facebook

Just as it did in the AHL, St. John’s will have to provide a travel subsidy to teams visiting Newfoundland.

The team will be owned by Deacon Sports and Entertainment, an entity controlled by MacDonald, with Stanford overseeing the operations.

“Both Glenn and I are ecstatic that professional hockey is coming back to St. John’s,” MacDonald said in a statement. “We believe that hockey fans in our city will welcome this great product.”

MacDonald and Stanford will be working with Irwin Simon and Rob Sabbagh, owners of the National Basketball League of Canada’s St. John’s Edge.

Simon and Sabbagh envision taking over management of Mile One and the St. John’s Convention Centre, a development which could take place in the next 12 to 18 months.

“We are excited about being part of the St. John’s community with the success of The Edge basketball team,” Sabbagh said in a news release. “We are equally excited to now play a role in the new hockey team and ultimately running Mile One and the Convention Centre.”

The City of St. John’s alluded to that latter possibility in its own release Tuesday when it announced that it and St. John’s Sports and Entertainment (SJSE), the city-established body that now operates Mile One, had finalized a memorandum of understanding with Atlantic Sports Enterprises Limited (the Simon-Sabbagh group) and Deacon Investments Limited as part of the deal to bring pro hockey back to the city.

The city also announced the agreement would guarantee a minimum of 36 home games per season for three years commencing this fall.

“This,” McKenna told The Telegram, “is now a St. John’s team with local ownership. It’s not going someplace else.

“This is a community asset which will have control of the product on the ice. Local ownership brings stability.”

The St. John’s Maple Leafs, which operated in St. John’s for 14 years, were owned by the Toronto Maple Leafs. In the start of what’s been a trend with NHL teams and their AHL affiliates, Toronto opted to move the Baby Leafs closer to home, in this case the Ricoh Centre in Toronto.

The same scenario applied to the Winnipeg Jets, who for four years owned the IceCaps. They moved their minor league operation to Winnipeg, and the Montreal Canadiens, who farmed their players to the IceCaps the past two years, now have their AHLers playing in Laval, Que., just north of Montreal where the Canadiens constructed and own the arena.

McKenna had hoped to put to bed the St. John’s deal in January. As a result of it coming later, and also due to the developments in Quad City, the league’s schedule for the following season, which is usually announced by early April, is likely to be delayed by a few weeks.

MacDonald and Stanford went through the process of acquiring an expansion franchise in December. All criteria were met, with the exception of one item: an arena lease agreement.

Simon and Sabbagh, through a clause in their lease agreement with Mile One Centre, had first dibs, if you will, for a hockey team to play at Mile One.

After SJSE ruled Simon and Sabbagh had lost the exclusive rights to bring hockey into the building, the Edge group announced it would be seeking arbitration.

And given that move, SJSE said it would not negotiate with MacDonald and Stanford while the arbitration process was ongoing, causing the delay.

Basically, what you had was one group with a hockey team, but nowhere to play, and another group with an arena, but no hockey team. Given that scenario, the competitors came together just over a week ago, agreeing to some form of partnership.

“This strong partnership,” MacDonald said, “will elevate professional sports in Newfoundland and provide many nights of action-packed entertainment for the community.”

As with the AHL, the ECHL — that has been its official name since 2003, when it was previously known as the East Coast Hockey League — has two conferences and four divisions.

Teams in the Eastern Conference’s South Division are the Atlanta Gladiators, Florida Everblades, Greenville Swamp Rabbits, Jacksonville Icemen, Norfolk Admirals, Orlando Solar Bears and South Carolina Stingrays.

The Central Division in the Western Conference feature the Cincinnati Cyclones, Fort Wayne Komets, Indy Fuel, Kalamazoo Wings, Toledo Walleye and Wheeling Nailers, while the Mountain Division have the Allen, Texas, Americans, Idaho Steelheads, Kansas City Mavericks, Rapid City, S.D., Rush, Tulsa Oilers, Utah Grizzlies and Wichita Thunder.

Generally, teams play within their own division and conference, although McKenna said there are interlocking games between East and West teams scheduled every year.

And teams in the far east — for example Manchester — play teams in the far west — say Utah or Idaho — at least every three years.

“Fans tell us a little variety is good,” he said.

To most Newfoundland hockey fans, the ECHL is an unknown entity.

McKenna, who was once director of hockey operations for the Ottawa Senators and vice-president and general manager of the AHL’s Carolina Monarchs, promises they will be pleasantly surprised.

About one-half of the ECHL players, on any given year, will play in the AHL.

“There’s a lot of movement back and forth,” he said. “You won’t see the high-end draft picks, unless they’re a goalie, but the quality of play is still very, very good.

“Not all kids are drafted out of Canadian major junior or U.S. college hockey, and of those that are drafted, not all will sign contracts. We are seeing some of the better kids from the Canadian Hockey League and NCAA D1 college playing in the ECHL.

“It’s a calibre of hockey people will grow to appreciate. There will be an education process that will have to occur as fans come to know who we are and what we are about.

“We’ve gone through this in Worcester, which was a long-time AHL market and people there have embraced the ECHL.”

There’s a lot of work that needs to be done before the team hits the ice next October. No doubt, fans will be keenly interested in what the team will be named, and its logo and colours. A schedule has to be drawn up, and the team needs to sell tickets.

A web site is expected to launched next week.

Most importantly, there needs to be a team. It’s expected the roster will be filled out by a combination of free agents and players assigned to St. John’s by the Leafs.

Toronto will have a big say in who will be hired to coach the team, along with the training and equipment staff.

robin.short@thetelegram.com

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