Imagine that, eh? Turns out that while St. John’s celebrated the prolonged American Hockey League sellout streak by the IceCaps a few years ago, not to mention that deep Calder Cup playoff run back in the spring of 2014, here all along this city was really a hoops town.
That’s probably stretching it a bit. Sports fans around here didn’t know the National Basketball League of Canada was fit to eat until November or December, but that hasn’t stopped the St. John’s Edge — the flavour of the month — from taking Mile One Centre by storm.
Don’t look now, but here we are halfway through the Edge’s debut season and the team is second in the NBL Canada’s average attendance with 3,370 per game, according to the league’s most recent stats.
Only London, Ont., a city of almost 400,000 with a 9,000-seat rink, is drawing more fans, with 3,771 on average.
Still, however, I’m not certain St. John’s really is a basketball town. The Memorial Sea-Hawks, and before them the Beothucks, have never really been a factor on the local sports front, despite a few decent teams in the 1970s and ’90s.
Today, the Sea-Hawks men’s team hasn’t come close to winning in a couple of decades, an embarrassing run of futility that draws shrugs of indifference.
So how to explain the success of the Edge, which is quite literally a league phenomenon? In most other cities, the NBL Canada franchises are an afterthought.
Maybe we could start with the fact that in terms of sports entertainment, there’s not a whole lot else going on around here.
That’s one reason.
The other is the Edge offers a decent night out, for a good price. And the team is winning.
It was suggested on Twitter this week the Edge has done a bang-up job in the marketing department, which would be half correct. The best marketing comes not from its thin budget, but from the Edge players, the coaches and the organization which, frankly, is a refreshing change from the pro hockey crowd that’s become way too stodgy for my liking.
In the few short months they’ve been here, we’ve learned these basketball players have, heaven forbid, personality. They’re out visiting schools and service organizations, getting involved in minor basketball groups. Last week, the Edge sponsored a coaching clinic with former UCLA bench boss Jim Harrick.
And imagine this, the Edge players actually want to talk to the media. The mere suggestion of that to some IceCaps would no doubt draw howls of laughter.
Jeff Parsons, the Edge’s talented photographer, was gobsmacked earlier this season when coach Jeff Dunlap invited Parsons into the room to shoot a pre-game meeting.
Parsons is the photog who had his shoot with the IceCaps’ goalies — sans their masks — nixed by the coach, for whatever reason.
Maybe the same reason why the skids were put on my planned interview with Michael Hutchinson years ago at a downtown Starbucks. Only at the rink, came word from on high.
I could go on and on …
Not that all the hockey players were distant and cold — far from — but it felt like fan interaction was definitely missing, which I’m convinced might be part of the reason for the basketball popularity we’re seeing.
Those same fans are seeing the Edge players signing autographs for the kids and mingling about after every game, win or lose, and people take to such things.
They see these ball players smiling, unlike the hockey crowd, who walked around looking constipated.
The obvious dynamics of a rink, of course, would make it almost impossible to allow the hockey players to meet and greet post-game as the ballers are so quick to embrace, but I guess the feeling I get is I’m not so certain the hockey guys would even want to endure that aggravation.
So maybe it’s no coincidence local sports fans have taken a shine to these outgoing, personable basketball players.
Maybe it’s no coincidence the NBL Canada has taken off in so St. John’s, more so than anyone could have ever imagined.
NBL Canada's Attendance figures up to and including Feb. 4 (per game average):
London Lightning, 3,771
St. John’s Edge, 3,370
Niagara River Lions, 1,883
Island (P.E.I.) Storm, 1,665
Saint John Rip Tide, 1,599
Halifax Hurricanes, 1,537
Cape Breton Highlanders, 1,369
Kitchener-Waterloo Titans, 1,200
Windsor Express, 943
Moncton Magic, 914
Did we mention Daniel Cleary averaged a point per game as a 15/16-year-old in junior A Kingston (46 points in 43 games) before heading off to major junior hockey in Belleville? And that Alex Newhook is tearing it up in junior A Victoria as a 16/17-year-old? Mark it down: Newhook will be a high pick in the 2019 NHL Draft … Nine of the 10 teams in the NBL Canada share their building with major junior hockey teams (the 10th being St. John’s). Why are some people getting so bent out of shape with the suggestion the ECHL share Mile One Centre with the Edge? … Hats off to Mount Pearl’s O’Donel High School for putting two teams in the Confederation Cup high school tournament. Nothing wrong with giving more kids a game of hockey. That said, surprised other, larger schools didn’t follow suit. Guess some the coaches and athletic directors didn’t want the hassle … There’s a bit of a St. John’s connection with the Clarkson University NCAA men’s hockey team. Its goalie is Jake Kielly of Ajax, Ont., who is the son of Dave Kielly of St. John’s and Susan Cole of Torbay. Kielly moved to Minnesota at a young age with his parents, when his father was transferred there with Best Buy. He has been with Clarkson since 2016. Dave Kielly played St. John’s junior and senior baseball with Holy Cross and the Guards … Look for a reborn Avalon East league next season with the Clarenville Caribous, Conception Bay CeeBees, Northeast Eagles and Mount Pearl Blades. And don’t be shocked if the Southern Shore Breakers aren’t part of it, either. As a guy said on TV the other day, “I’m not sayin’ it’s true. I’m just sayin’ that’s what I’m hearin’!” … He probably won’t win, because he’s in the background too much, but my vote for executive of the year is George Bursell, who has a big hand in keeping the St. John’s Junior Hockey League going. While senior hockey is a mess year in, year out, the junior league keeps an even keel with little or no fanfare. Too bad, because it’s one of Newfoundland and Labrador’s hockey success stories … And one more thing I’m hearin’: Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador — or, more to the point, the St. John’s junior league — might be pulling out of Don Johnson Cup Atlantic junior B play …
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort