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ROBIN SHORT: This New York state of mind doesn't add up

Telegram file photo — Mile One Centre doesn’t have a hockey tenant for the 2017-2018 season, but the expectation is that there will be one in place this fall, what with two groups — one seeking a QMJHL team, the other an ECHL franchise — having expressed a desire to do so.
Telegram file photo — A pair of well-heeled New York businessmen want to add hockey to their basketball product at Mile One Centre. Robin Short wonders what makes the NBL Canada and the ECHL so attractive to Irwin Simon and Robert Sabbagh?

What makes hockey and hoops in St. John's so attractive to a pair of successful Big Apple businessmen?


It’s a question pesky journalists have been asking for decades, when secrets and cover-ups were first exposed by reporters’ typewriters.

The five Ws — who, what, when, where and why, with a how thrown in for good measure — have always been the reporter’s credo, and it’s the “why” part that doesn’t quite add up with today’s top local sports story.

Or more to the point, why would a multi-millionaire from New York City be even remotely interested in a basketball team, and a Grade D pro league in far-flung Newfoundland? And what’s the attraction to bringing a hockey team to St. John’s?

The simple answer, of course, would be to make money.


Irwin Simon, apparently, is very good at that. With a company, Hain Celestial, that reportedly has yearly sales in the billions — that’s with a B — Simon has pockets supposedly as deep as the Mariana Trench.

Which arouses the curiosity even more: why would he be bothered with a National Basketball League of Canada franchise that, in his world, deals in Monopoly money?

Simon is the son of a Glace Bay, N.S., grocer, who headed for Toronto after college and soon thereafter was attracted to the bright lights and big dreams offered in the Big Apple.

Talk about your all-Canadian stories.

His partner is an auto dealership owner from Brooklyn, N.Y., chap by the name of Robert Sabbagh, and I’m willing to bet dollars to doughnuts he needed a map to find Newfoundland and Labrador when Simon initially brought up this whole NBL Canada and St. John’s thing.

Simon acknowledges a new-found affinity for Newfoundland after having seen “Come From Away,” and sings the praises of Mile One Centre, a building nearing 20 years old and one that’s actually quite common in any mid-sized centre across the country.

He also cites St. John’s as a great place to spend some time.

I think it’s all pure folly, akin to a belief in the Easter Bunny. But hey, that’s just me.

Simon speaks of returning to his Atlantic Canadian roots, which sounds nice, but it’s my experience that Nova Scotians have no more affinity for Newfoundland and Labrador than we do for them.

There is no such thing as regional pride.

So why? Why is Simon, from behind the desk of his Manhattan office, so suddenly interested in and enamoured by St. John’s and its sporting future? 

This all came about less than a year ago with John Graham, a sports and entertainment promoter from Toronto who was familiar with St. John’s, having done business here.

Graham was the one who initially got the short-lived Minnesota North Stars’ minor pro team to St. John’s — actually, it never even got off the ground — and had a part in the Toronto Maple Leafs moving their minor league operation to town the following year.

Somewhere along the line many years later, Graham and Simon hooked up, and word is Simon floated the idea of buying a junior hockey team back in his native Nova Scotia.

The Halifax Mooseheads certainly aren’t for sale, which left the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles a perfect fit for Simon, the Cape Bretoner.

That team, however, isn’t for sale either.

But there was another market with which Graham was familiar, one with a solid track record of hockey, a good building, plenty of corporate support and a sizable population to support a team.

Graham sold Simon on St. John’s, and the hunt for a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team was on.

But just as they and another group from St. John’s learned last year, the QMJHL is not interested in expansion, and there are no teams for sale.

Then Graham stumbled on this whole NBL Canada thing, which, if nothing else, gave him and Simon a foot in the door at Mile One Centre for a hockey team down the road.

So now, here we are halfway through the hoops season, and the St. John’s Edge are doing well on the court and at the turnstiles.

What the bottom line is showing is anyone’s guess. Not sure how the corporate sales are going, but 80 or 90 per cent of the Mile One suites are empty.

As for the hockey, well, there’s a bigger problem. Simon still doesn’t have a team.

But St. John’s does have one … kind of. Dean MacDonald and Glenn Stanford, a pair of respected names in the local community, have an ECHL expansion team ready to roll next season.

However, Simon and Sabbagh aren’t prepared to ice their hockey plans just yet, invoking an arbitration clause, it’s MacDonald’s hunch, to challenge what they see as their exclusive right to operate a hockey franchise at Mile One.

Sabbagh told the CBC he doesn’t believe there is a deadline in their contract to finding a hockey team for Mile One.

“We haven’t really thought about sharing the building with another tenant,” Sabbagh said. “I’m not saying that in an adversarial way; we just never considered that.”

Strange, when you consider that across Atlantic Canada, and through most of Ontario, the NBL Canada basketball teams share arenas with major junior hockey clubs, and both franchises in each city are almost all separately owned.

It’s certain a battle may be brewing, as Simon and Sabbagh aren’t willing to walk away from hockey quietly.

Nobody is sure how this will play out. Perhaps MacDonald/Stanford will hook up with Simon/Sabbagh to form a partnership. Smart businessmen, which no doubt they all are, would recognize it makes the most sense, for the two groups, Mile One and the city’s hockey fans.

What isn’t so clear, however, and a point that keeps gnawing at me, is why are the New Yorkers so hell-bent on St. John’s and Newfoundland in the first place?

It can’t be the NBL Canada and ECHL, which — in their world of metropolitan New York, the Rangers and Knicks, Nets, Devils and Islanders, not to mention Yankees and Mets, Jets and Giants — are about as minor league as you can get.

Lunch money vs. real money.

And please, enough of the “Come From Away” foolishness.

None of it adds up.

Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort

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