A fresh sheet of ice covers the Mile One Centre floor, awaiting the Newfoundland Growlers’ return next week from a trio of exhibition games on the west coast and Clarenville.
Things are rapidly coming together for the province’s expansion ECHL team, which kicks off its first season a week from today with the Florida Everblades in town for a two-game set.
Except for one little detail: the Growlers still don’t have a lease agreement signed, sealed and delivered with St. John’s Sports and Entertainment, the board which runs Mile One.
Negotiations certainly aren’t as public or as combative as they were when Derm Dobbin was trying to nail down an agreement with the city-owned rink and his Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team all those years ago, or when Danny Williams voiced his displeasure with the high cost of doing business at Mile One for his American Hockey League team, the St. John’s IceCaps.
Dean MacDonald, rather, is taking the high road, saying all the right things.
But it’s like seven days to opening night, right?
“Both parties are working on good faith,” the Growlers’ owner said this week. “I think there are a few small outstanding issues, but, yes, it’s not signed.
“Everyone expects, and certainly hopes, to have it signed over the course of the next few days.
“It’s certainly been a grind.”
The building has been spiffed up in anticipation of pro hockey returning to St. John’s, starting with an overhaul of the corporate suites and a fancy new LED ring which should be up and running by next month.
Both projects have been cost-shared between the Growlers and SJSE.
They’re not the only changes MacDonald would like to see. He’d like to alleviate lengthy lines at the concession stands by selling beer in the stands, and setting up food and beverage satellite stations around the rink.
“That’s something we are really pushing hard with the city,” he said. “If people come down and have to wait 30 minutes to get a ticket to get into the game, then line up to get a beer and a plate of fries, they’re missing half the event that they just paid to get in and see.”
Of course, as a tenant, that’s not entirely his call.
And it’s one of the reasons he’d like to take over managing the building, or even purchasing it outright.
“In any business,” he said “you want to be the master of your own destiny. We don’t have offices in this building, but it’s where our business performs. Functionally-speaking, there is so much more efficiency and smoothness of operation if you’re managing the facility or owning the facility because it’s our players, it’s our game and it’s one less level permission to go through.
“If we need someone to paint a sign on a wall, we don’t need to ask permission. There are many levels of approvals you have to go through for pretty much everything you do. That just adds time, effort and cost to everything.
“We’d love to own the facility or manage the facility because there are just less people involved.”
Irwin Simon wants a piece of the action, too.
MacDonald has been working closely with Simon, owner of the National Basketball League of Canada’s Edge. Both teams are already working together closely, sharing marketing, ticketing, advertising and sponsorship, not to mention office staff.
And while a new dressing room is being constructed adjacent to the Growlers’ locker room, the basketball team will have access to the hockey team’s workout area.
Both MacDonald and Simon have a similar vision for Mile One.
“Irwin and I know we could make that work,” MacDonald said.
“I think it’s universally acknowledged that facilities which are privately run probably perform better than those which are city or state or provincially-run. It’s just the nature of the beast. You’re answering to a whole different set of circumstances if you’re a publicly-run facility.
“If you have potholes and other infrastructure needs, facilities such as these can slide far down on the list of priorities.”
Continual disagreements over lease agreements, division between owner and tenant, and a calendar which remains mostly wide open apart from the ECHL and NBL Canada — a Telegram report in June, 2017 showed Mile One had the highest rental rate card of any building of similar size in Atlantic Canada — motivate the two pro sports owners to explore building ownership or management plans.
“It’s important,” Simon said from New York this week, “that teams own the facility (in which they play). And utilization is what’s very, very important with an asset like that.
“Utilization is the key. It’s what drives the downtown core. You can look at any sports and entertainment venue anywhere and see that.”
Both MacDonald and Simon, the health food magnate originally from Glace Bay, N.S., envision big things for Mile One, with Simon specifically singling out teams in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and arena football as potential clients.
And while it has nothing to do with Mile One, Simon has talked about pro soccer, specifically the Canadian Premier league, and St. John’s.
“And when you have Mile One Centre, you have the opportunity for other venues such as concerts and theatre and opera,” he said.
Simon is closing in on a deal to purchase the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. However, he says he remains “150 per cent” committed to the Edge, and if he and MacDonald are successful, Mile One.
“I’m not abandoning St. John’s at all,” he said. “If anything, I’ll be more involved. I’m stepping down as CEO of my business, so I’m looking to come back home and invest more and buy more.
“One of the great things that has happened is developing a relationship with Dean. We look to do a lot more with Mile One, with the Convention Centre and with St. John’s.”
MacDonald would probably be happy just to sign off on a lease for now.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort