Yes, there is posturing, but team’s frustration over lack of Mile One deal is real, so is possibility of relocation next year
First off, don’t expect Newfoundland Growlers majority owner Dean MacDonald to announce Tuesday that the ECHL team will definitely be leaving the province at the end of the upcoming season.
But when MacDonald meets with the media in St. John’s tomorrow, you can count on him to reiterate what he’s been suggesting for the past month, that if he can’t get a more favourable lease deal at Mile One Centre, he is certainly prepared to relocate the team — which he says lost a million dollars in its inaugural season — next year.
It’s easy to see all of this as off-ice gamesmanship, especially giving the timing of the press conference, coming in the midst of a highly successful training-camp visit of the parent Toronto Maple Leafs and in advance of Tuesday’s NHL exhibition game between the Leafs and Ottawa Senators at Mile One.
But it's also almost impossible to view it as some sort of bluff.
When MacDonald says he is prepared to move, there is apparently actual preparation involved.
The Growlers have already investigated possible sites for relocation, and word is that process has ranged farther than Trois Rivieres, Que., where MacDonald travelled last month to check out a new arena is being built.
The Leafs are being appraised of the situation and updated on the possibilities for the defending ECHL champs, who will begin their second year of operations next month.
With the 2019-20 ECHL season set to begin and all of the Growlers’ off-season work having been done with assumption the team will be playing out of Mile One, the team has no choice but to operate out of St. John’s this season. However, even though the three-year affiliation deal with Toronto extends into the 2020-21 season, there is nothing in the agreement that says that the ECHL club has to be located in St. John’s for that third season.
The Growlers and St. John’s Sports and Entertainment, which operates Mile One on behalf of the City of St. John’s, have been holding on-and-off talks ever since July, when the city and SJSE announced they would no longer pursue a plan, outlined in a 2018 memorandum of understanding MOU, that would have seen the Growlers and National Basketball League of Canada’s St. John’s Edge take over management of the facility.
The end of the MOU meant new lease deals were required for both teams, but negotiations have been more than contentious. The Growlers and Edge both say they lost considerable money in 2018-19, but that a new offer from SJSE would amount to a 65 per cent increase in what the teams would pay to play out of Mile One.
The city and SJSE have countered by saying, in their view, the lease offers are almost identical to what was in place last season and that they are focused on being fiscally responsible as they try to reduce Mile One’s operating deficit, in the range of $2 million annually.
MacDonald insists the pros’ presence has been financially beneficial to the Mile One bottom line, that the facility’s operating shortfall would have been considerably larger last season had the teams not been there.
...whether or not you believe Tuesday’s media gathering is mostly posturing, whether it all holds any particular importance to you, it is difficult to dismiss MacDonald's and the Growlers’ frustration.
The latter hasn’t been disputed by the city, but it would be one of the rare points of agreement in the negotiation process, which seems to have been painted by mutual mistrust and sealed in acrimony.
The friction occurs on an almost line-by-line basis, with one of the issues been activation of the new LED ring that’s been installed around Mile One.
Even though ring’s $1 million cost is the responsibility of the teams, it is to become property of SJSE, while the Edge and Growlers would derive advertising revenue from its operation. But while the Growlers have paid their share towards the cost, the Edge reportedly haven’t yet covered the full amount of the balance.
MacDonald said the company which sold and installed the ring is prepared to give permission to have it operate for hockey games only, at least until the Edge complete their contribution to the costs and make the sale final. But MacDonald claims SJSE has balked at this scheme, that Mile One management wants to be the only one to determine if, when and how the ring is to be activated.
That’s why it wasn’t on for Sunday’s Maple Leafs’ alumni game at Mile One
It is just one of many Growlers grievances, often expressed passionately by MacDonald.
The city has been more measured in its responses, with Coun. Sandy Hickman, who is also SJSE chairman, regularly claiming it is important to have the teams at Mile One and expressing hopefulness for new pacts.
But MacDonald has described such talk as “a sham” worked up for the public’s benefit and doesn’t reflect the attitude the Growlers are coming up against at the negotiating table.
However you see the numbers, or assess the positions of the opposing sides, whether or not you believe Tuesday’s media gathering is mostly posturing, whether it all holds any particular importance to you, it is difficult to dismiss MacDonald's and the Growlers’ frustration.
From this vantage point, it appears very real. And if what is happening is some sort of a game of chicken and the Growlers are the first to choose to veer off, nobody should be surprised if the resulting path eventually takes them right out of town.