Dean MacDonald and Glenn Stanford are a partnership which came together to bring professional hockey back to St. John’s — in the form of the ECHL — and they expected to be negotiating a lease agreement for Mile One Centre right about now.
Well, not only can the two not get to the Mile One boardroom table, they can’t even get someone to return a phone call from St. John’s Sports and Entertainment, the city-established board that runs the downtown arena.
“I reached out to SJSE Tuesday, and they haven’t returned my calls,” said MacDonald late Thursday afternoon.
MacDonald, the well-known St. John’s businessman, and Stanford, the face behind St. John's American Hockey League teams for 20 years, most recently as chief operating officer of the St. John’s IceCaps, have approval from the ECHL — which dubs itself the “Premier AA hockey league” — to bring an expansion team to St. John's for the 2018-19 season.
However, it’s conditional on a lease agreement with Mile One. Which could be a whole lot easier said than done.
MacDonald and Stanford aren’t the only ones seeking a hockey team for Mile One. The ownership group of the National Basketball League of Canada’s St. John’s Edge, a team which is proving to be a resounding success at the turnstiles through its infancy, is also pursuing a team, be it an ECHL or Quebec Major Junior Hockey League franchise.
That’s a change in philosophy as the Edge owners, led by New York businessman and health food magnate Irwin Simon, had their sights set on the QMJHL, and were openly dismissive of the ECHL.
It appears they’ll take what they can get, and there’s not much available.
The QMJHL is not expanding, and there doesn’t appear to be a team available for purchase and relocation.
Simon, originally from Glace Bay, N.S., has approached the ECHL about St. John’s, but MacDonald said the league sent a letter to the city indicating its excitement about adding St. John’s to the fold beginning next season, “but they made it clear while there are others who may be pursuing a team for St. John’s, the league will only deal with Glenn Stanford and Dean MacDonald … today and any time in the future.
“Hockey originally came to St. John’s primarily because of Glenn Stanford. He knows how to run a franchise, and he knows how to run it well. The ECHL knows this.”
So why then have negotiations not yet started with SJSE? Or more to the point, why have members of the SJSE board not yet picked up the phone to call MacDonald?
Why have negotiations not yet started?
First, some background.
The lease agreement reached earlier this year that put the Edge in Mile One included a clause providing the owners of the basketball team with 18 months of exclusivity when it came to delivering a hockey team to the building. But there was a sub-clause that basically said if an individual or group other than the Edge ownership came forward with another hockey proposal, then the Edge owners would have a certain amount of time to deliver their own hockey plan.
Otherwise, the exclusivity would disappear.
According to MacDonald, and SJSE for that matter, the exclusivity was up this past Monday.
In early December, SJSE provided Edge owners with notice that their exclusive right to operate a hockey franchise at Mile One extended until on Jan. 22, in accordance to its lease agreement.
“It’s obvious they don’t have a team,” MacDonald said, “and now they’re ragging the puck — pardon the pun — to delay us.”
In a story published on cbc.ca Tuesday, Robert Sabbagh, a Brooklyn, N.Y. auto dealership owner, who is a partner with Simon in the Edge, said, “I’ve heard that bantered about, yes. I can’t say I agree with it, but I've heard it,” in reference to the Monday exclusivity deadline.
So while he can’t say for certain, MacDonald feels the Edge owners have invoked an arbitration clause, a dispute mechanism he says is common in most contracts.
That’s assuming the Edge ownership has a dispute with SJSE.
“The exclusivity clause is solid, and in my mind, the city was smart to include it,” MacDonald said. “To me, it’s black and white, and the city must view it the same way.
“Clearly, the Edge owners do not have a hockey team, and they know we do, and they’re invoking this clause to delay us. The only thing they’re doing is keeping hockey from this city, and 30-plus nights from Mile One Centre.”
MacDonald said he and Stanford have been nothing but up front throughout the process, and spoke with SJSE chairman Bob Verge and CEO Sheena McCrate about the pending negotiations last week.
“It was like, ‘Look, we know the deadline is approaching, and at that time we’d like to get the discussions going.’ They couldn’t speak to it because the 45-day window hadn’t closed, and we totally respected that.
“Now, here we are and it’s day 47 or 48, and still no talks. We can only assume there are some legal matters clamming it up.”
The 2018-19 hockey season is still a long ways off, but it’s safe to say time is not on MacDonald’s or Stanford’s side.
That’s because the ECHL usually clews up its schedule for the following season in late spring. That’s in contrast to the American Hockey League, when its schedule was done in the summer. That’s because a couple of AHL teams share buildings with NBA teams — the Cleveland Monsters, for example, play at Quicken Loans Arena, home to the Cleveland Cavaliers — and the AHL has to wait for the NBA dates to be put in place.
“They want to get their schedule in place, and they want to know if we’re in or out,” MacDonald said of the ECHL.
“As it stands now, it’s clear to me the other side is ragging the puck to kill time and frustrate this process. In doing so, ultimately it will be the citizens who will pay if there’s no hockey next season, and Mile One which will be out 36 dates.”
Attempts to contact McCrate Thursday afternoon were unsuccessful.