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Hockey still has place at Mile One

While those following and cheering for the St. John’s IceCaps were somewhat shocked, bewildered and maybe a bit rotted with Tuesday’s news emanating out of Thunder Bay, Ont., those within the team’s front office weren’t quite so buffaloed.

The St. John’s IceCaps, the Winnipeg Jets farm team, are shown in action from Saturday night’s game against the Manchester Monarchs. Danny Williams has confirmed that the IceCaps franchise will move to Thunder Bay, Ont. He told the media Tuesday he’ll look at getting another franchise. — Telegram file photo

That’s because Danny Williams, Glenn Stanford et al were expecting this day to come, and indeed have been preparing for it a while now.

In fact, the most startling element of the announcement that the Jets are winging their American Hockey League affiliate to northern Ontario, eventually, was the timing of it — St. John’s will play host to the league’s All-Star Classic in about three weeks’ time.

“I’m not shocked, I’m not pissed, I’m not upset,” said Williams, the IceCaps’ president and CEO.

“I’m disappointed the Jets could leave the city, but by the same token, it’s not something we had no idea was coming,” Williams said.

Tuesday at Thunder Bay City Hall, a group headed by former NHL coach and broadcaster Gary Green announced it had Winnipeg’s True North Sports and Entertainment — owners of the Jets and IceCaps — on board as a partner in a proposed new $106.1 million event centre.

The IceCaps arrived on the scene in 2011-12 with Williams signing a three-year deal to lease the AHL club from the Jets. After Year 1, the contract was extended another year meaning the current deal expires following the 2014-15 season.

There has not been a hint of extensions since — I wrote about this very topic on Oct. 5 — and Williams, ever the architect of future planning, has been busy since the fall implementing Plan B.

And what would said plan include?

Lips are sealed on this one, although Williams did indicate Tuesday purchasing a franchise falls within one of his grand plans.

“Absolutely, I’m quite prepared to go out and buy a franchise, too, to keep professional sport here in the city,” he said.

A lot easier said than done, but make no mistake Williams and his chief lieutenant, Stanford, have been busy doing a sales job on St. John’s.

Not that the city needs a lot of marketing within the AHL. Not when you’ve got a sellout streak dating back to when the team arrived, not when you’ve got overwhelming corporate and community support, and a relatively new 13-year-old rink.

“We’re all over it,” said Williams. “We put together a prospectus already which sets out what we’re all about, what we’ve done, the success we’ve had. We’re circulating that among some AHL teams.

“We’ve already talked to some other teams in the eventuality that Winnipeg leaves, and we’re going to continue to do so.”

When Winnipeg bolts for Thunder Bay — the Jets’ farm club won’t play in northern Ontario for years, but will still likely leave Newfoundland after next season, probably playing on an interim basis in Winnipeg — St. John’s won’t be alone as a city which lost two teams — remember the St. John’s Maple Leafs? — and in search of a third.

Many AHL cities have housed two, three and four different NHL parent clubs; Portland, Maine alone has worked with eight NHL partners.

Of course, wanting a team and a willingness to roll out the dough to buy a team is one thing. Finding one that’s available is another.

Certainly, there are teams in the American Hockey League drawing flies, and St. John’s must seem appealing to their owners.

Binghamton, N.Y., is an interesting situation. Its contract with the Ottawa Senators expires the end of next season — in line with St. John’s and Winnipeg — and the logical thinking is the Senators would probably want to remain in Canada, if they had their druthers.

And Ottawa is relatively close to St. John’s.

The New York Islanders won’t go away — the Isles and St. John’s were mentioned together way back when — although there is talk the current Bridgeport Sound Tigers (the Isles’ farm team) might move into Nassau County Coliseum when the Islanders move to Brooklyn.

In Hamilton, the Bulldogs continue to battle the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres for fans, not to mention an aging building (Copps Coliseum) and a downtown no one wants to visit after dark.

If the Canadiens were to some how land in St. John’s, Williams could sell tickets to sit on the Mile One roof. But if Montreal was to move its farm club, the Bulldogs would likely be headed to some place in Quebec.

In some regards, geography will always continue to hinder St. John’s, though the Manchester, N.H.-Los Angeles, Worcester, Mass.-San Jose and Norfolk, Va.-Anaheim partnerships blow those arguments out of the water.

Regardless, St. John’s, as a viable hockey market, has a lot going for it, and Stanford’s reputation as a leader amongst AHL execs, coupled with Williams’s penchant for making things happen make this city a good bet for American league hockey long after 2015.

And wouldn’t all-star weekend be a perfect time for an announcement?

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