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A retiring NHler, the dad of a world junior contender, a returning coach and the Growlers' third jersey are linked to Newfoundland's first pro hockey team
The ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers will be having a throwback night Saturday as they hark back to the days of the province’s first professional hockey team.
The Growlers will be wearing St. John’s Maple Leafs jerseys as they close out a four-game homestand with a matchup against the Worcester Railers.
It’s been more than 28 years since the American Hockey League Leafs arrived in town for a stay that lasted 14 seasons.
Interestingly, while the Growlers prepare to don blue and white garb, there are some current affairs that have tie-ins — even if they amount to just tidbits — with the St. John’s Maple Leafs.
For one thing, the father of recently announced world junior hopeful Dawson Mercer of Bay Roberts attended the AHL Leafs’ training camp in 1995, played some exhibition games with them in the Maritimes and scored a couple of goals in a intrasquad contest at Memorial Stadium before being cut.
There was even some talk about Craig Mercer going to the South Carolina Stingrays, the Leafs’ ECHL affiliate of the time. It didn’t happen, but Mercer did get to try out for the AHL Leafs again midway through the 1995-96 season, when call-ups and injuries led to a depleted St. John’s roster, so much so that an exasperated head coach Tom Watt held a tryout camp for local senior standouts, including Mercer, in an attempt to find players to fill out the roster.
One of Watt’s assistant coaches for that 1995-96 season, or at least a part of it, was former NHLer Mike Foligno, who is back in St. John’s this week as an assistant coach for the national men’s para hockey team competing in the Canadian Tire Para Hockey Cup tournament that resumes today at the Paradise Double Ice Complex after a one-day break.
Foligno didn’t spent the entire ’95-96 season in St. John’s. Late in the campaign, after Pat Burns was fired as head coach of the parent Leafs, Foligno was promoted to Toronto to work as an assistant to interim coach Nick Beverley.
His job as an AHL Leafs’ assistant was his first in coaching for Foligno, who would go on to a career behind the bench that has seen him spend six years as an assistant in the NHL, five as head coach of the AHL’s Hershey Bears and seven as head coach/GM of the OHL Wolves in his hometown of Sudbury.
The 60-year-old Foligno, a former Buffalo Sabres captain and the third overall pick in the 1979 NHL draft by Detroit, had a big-league career that stretched over 1,018 games and saw him register 727 points, including 355 goals.
Speaking of players with a thousand NHL games, there was one who spent a season early his career with the AHL Leafs and went on to total 1,003 big-league contest, more than anyone else who played pro hockey in St. John’s.
You would be forgiven if you thought the player was former St. John’s scoring star Yanic Perreault, but while Perreault had a notable NHL career, it amounted to 859 games.
The thousand-game ex AHL Leaf is Matt Stajan, who announced his retirement as a player Tuesday.
Stajan, who turns 36 later this month, played 15 years in the NHL, six with Toronto and the remainder with the Calgary Flames, picking up 146 goals and 267 assists along the way.
Known as an industriious, effective checking centre and an outstanding teammate, Stajan finished his career play playing one season (2018-19) in Germany. Other than that, his time as a pro was spent entirely in the NHL, except for the 2004-05 lockout season, when he was sent to St. John’s, where he had 23 goals and 66 points while playing all 80 games.