Time to pause the Heart 8-track and weigh in on the latest instalment of the will-hockey-return-to-Mile-One-again chronicle.
Seems at least some folks within St. John’s Sports and Entertainment — rulers of Mile One Centre — are confident, telling hockey fans over the weekend the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League will re-emerge in St. John’s, perhaps as soon as next September.
There’s more than one Q team struggling today, but the franchise most likely destined for St. John’s, comes word down the pipe, is Acadie-Bathurst. That’s the same Titan team the city thought it had secured two years ago, only to learn it been played by the slippery Leo-Guy Morrissette.
Anyway, the loose lips are the first tangible sign the city is anxious to get an anchor tenant back in the rink some at City Hall refuse to call a rink. And then there’s Coun. Danny Breen’s assertion — correctly so — that a record attendance at last week’s 4 Nations Cup women’s tourney, a crowd of about 5,000 or so for an AHL exhibition game and a decent turnout for the world junior evaluation camp — even when it was it was held in early August — are indications there’s an appetite for hockey in these parts.
But if major junior hockey didn’t work before — the St. John’s Fog Devils were sold off to Montreal after three years, seasons in which attendance gradually declined — who is to say it will work a second time? It could, but it’s going to take a different approach.
Here’s a few suggestions:
Have plenty of dough
The new owner will need money, and lots of it. It’s one thing to come up with the $4 million or so purchase price (certainly higher than the $3-million expansion tag five years ago); it’s another to keep funneling money into a team during its lowpoint in the traditionally topsy-turvy, four- or five-year cycle that is the nature of junior hockey.
Of course, St. John’s might get lucky if an established club — like the Titan, a decent team this season — arrives next season with personnel in place.
But there’s going to be a need for plenty of cash, especially in light of the fact it’s almost certain that St. John’s will have to pick up the travel costs for incoming teams.
And if you really want to lure a star player to St. John’s, a few greenbacks tossed about won’t go astray (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).
Make friends at City Hall
Hindsight being as it is, the Fog Devils didn’t have a chance after Derm and Craig Dobbin swooped in and landed the expansion franchise under the city’s nose, prompting the latter to become resolute in its effort to milk the team, through Mile One, of every last nickle.
To the point where the Fog Devils, after managing to come to terms on a lease of the building, would later learn the scoreclock came with an additional charge.
SJSE is steadfast in its assertion hockey will not be subsidized. (When was it ever funded, other than normal operating subsidies to Memorial Stadium and later Mile One?)
The board can’t be expected to sell the shop, but it must also be willing to cut a break to an anchor tenant, easily accomplished in a number of areas, either through sponsorship, food and beverage, etc.
To suggest such a tenant is not needed, that things are just swell competing with local rinks for ice hires, coupled with a smattering of entertainment (much of which is outdated) is preposterous.
For if hockey is no longer needed, remove the boards, sell the ice plant and convert Mile One into a bona fide sound stage. Or shut its doors completely, and distribute its current subsidy elsewhere.
Market, market, market
Pro hockey’s been out of the picture in St. John’s five years now, yet there’s a sector which believes the AHL is hockey’s be all, end all. Fact is, it’s a different AHL now than the one which once featured the St. John’s Maple Leafs, Cape Breton Oilers and Fredericton Canadiens. Many rosters today are little more than glorified junior and college rosters, the bulk of which are comprised of rookie, second- and third-year pros.
Major junior hockey has prospered elsewhere in Canada, from Halifax to Chicoutimi to Peterborough, Swift Current and Kamloops. Why not here?
But the junior message has to be delivered, not merely assuming everyone knows Sidney Crosby, Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, Brad Richards, Daniel Briere and Mike Ribeiro all played in the QMJHL, together with young NHL stars Claude Giroux, Ondrej Pavelec, Derick Brassard, Kris Letang and Keith Yandle.
People in this region want a reason to get out of the house for a night or two during the week, with a comfortable Mile One more appealing to the human condition than a frigid Glacier or Jack Byrne Arena.
But prospective owners of this franchise would be foolhardy to believe that merely flinging open the doors and expecting people to rush in is a primary marketing tool.
Like any other product, this, too, has to be pushed.
As the NBA’s figured out, there’s more to the entertainment package than what goes on between the lines.
Get the right people in place
A general manager with a solid QMJHL background, who knows the ins and outs of the league, is a given. And while this has little to do with the on-ice product, a former, profile NHLer would be nice to have behind the bench, a face of the franchise, if nothing else.
Since the Jonathan Roy incident in 2008, the QMJHL frowns on fighting. But that doesn’t mean a tough, gritty team cannot be iced in St. John’s, a team of Steve Downies or Scott Hartnells. A team that will play tough; a team that will make St. John’s a very difficult place to play.
That’s where the GM and scouts come into play.
And while it might be a cost-saving measure, a roster chocker blocked with Newfoundlanders doesn’t always translate into a full house.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org