What’s next for St. John’s?

The St. John’s IceCaps of the American Hockey League (AHL) currently lead the league in season ticket holders, sponsorship dollars, and merchandise sales – an impressive feat given that the league features big markets such as Toronto, Cleveland, and Chicago. Additionally, the team has sold out every single game (Mile One Centre holds 6,287) in the team’s history dating back to 2011 – currently the longest continuous streak in AHL history. Yet, despite all of this, it looks as if the city may soon be without an AHL team to call their own for the second time in less than a decade (St. John’s was home to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate from 1991-2005).

True North Sports and Entertainment’s President Mark Chipman confirmed on Tuesday that they plan to move the Winnipeg Jets’ AHL affiliate to Thunder Bay when a new stadium is built in the northern Ontario city (by a consortium that includes the Jets). The timeline for the move is currently sketchy at best considering financing hasn’t even been approved for Thunder Bay’s new facility yet. But it looks like the plan right now is to play out the team’s agreement in St. John’s until the end of the 2014-15 season, and then relocate the team to Winnipeg for a season or two before dropping the puck in Thunder Bay in 2016 or 2017.

True North cited simple geography as the reason for the move. And you can’t argue that. No matter which way you slice it, St. John’s is on an island in the northeast part of the country, closer to London, England than Winnipeg. And while many via social media have countered with the fact that Abbotsford is completely off the beaten track by AHL standards, and Manchester, Portland, and Syracuse are all affiliates for west coast NHL clubs, there’s a caveat in these situations. Abbotsford is at least somewhat close to Calgary – something that can’t be said about St. John’s and Winnipeg. And for the latter three cities, many AHL teams are located in and around New York State. So travel for those teams is minimal, allowing for more practice time for players.

So where does St. John’s go from here? IceCaps’ President Danny Williams insists that St. John’s will continue to have AHL hockey – even if he has to buy a team himself. And he’s made it clear that this was no surprise to the IceCaps’ management team. In fact, he revealed that they have been promoting St. John’s as a preferred AHL destination to other teams in recent months with the aid of AHL President Dave Andrews.  The business case is certainly there, and with Andrews and Chipman (a respected guy in AHL circles after heading up the Manitoba Moose for a decade) on the IceCaps’ side, the outlook right now appears positive. But make no bones about it; getting another NHL club to commit to playing is St. John’s is going to be an uphill battle.

The most logical possibility would be the Ottawa Senators. Their arrangement with Binghamton is set to expire at the end of the 2014-15 season (the same season the IceCaps’ deal with the Jets is up). Ottawa is a Canadian franchise that’s located far enough east to make logistical sense. And the team is currently cash strapped so a profitable AHL operation might be attractive.

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Another option is the New York Islanders. They were apparently interested in St. John’s years back, even holding a regular season game in the city (against the Binghamton Senators, ironically enough). However, there have been rumours that the Isles are moving their affiliate to Long Island when they relocate to Brooklyn. But if an American team is to make the jump to St. John’s, I feel it’s the Isles. The organization is borderline crazy so nothing is unimaginable.

Other suggestions have been the Hamilton Bulldogs and the Albany Devils. The Bulldogs were kicking the tires at St. John’s back when Jim Balsillie was sniffing out Hamilton for his NHL team. At the time, IceCaps’ COO Glenn Stanford (from St. John’s) was the President and Governor of the Bulldogs. I’d assume Stanford has a good relationship with Bulldogs’ owner Michael Andlauer so that may spark some interest. But despite issues in Hamilton, the Bulldogs have been rumoured to be going to Burlington at some point so I see it as a stretch.  As for the Devils, I don’t see it. I really don’t think New Jersey wants anything to do with an affiliate in St. John’s, even if Albany is drawing flies. While there’s a direct flight from St. John’s to Newark, it’s not daily and the plane is not large enough for all the hockey gear.

What if the AHL no longer becomes an option for St. John’s? Maybe Williams makes a pitch for an ECHL or major junior team to keep the IceCaps’ brand alive. From 2005-2008, major junior hockey was introduced to the city but was met with resistance following the departure of the AHL’s Baby Leafs. This forced ownership of the St. John’s Fog Devils to sell the team after just three seasons due to a lack of interest. However, in terms of geography, the ‘Q’ makes the most sense. Every other city in the region has a Quebec Major team. As for the ECHL, St. John’s would be on an island (both figuratively and literally) similar to the situation right now in the AHL. And if it comes down to the ECHL, you’re better off doing major junior, in my opinion.

Nevertheless, Williams seems hard set on the AHL. And rightfully so considering it’s pro hockey and St. John’s has proven itself a strong AHL town after two successful runs in the league.  What happens to the IceCaps in 2015-16 is anyone’s guess.  But for the sake of hockey fans in St. John’s and Newfoundland, who have had a rough go of it in the last ten years with keeping hockey teams, let’s hope things work themselves out positively.

Adam Puddicombe

Adam Puddicombe is a digital marketing professional who, by day, works in the ad agency world, and by night, covers the intersection of Canadian sports, media, and technology. Adam holds a degree in commerce, with a focus in marketing, and previously worked for Hockey Night in Canada’s Play On! and the St. John’s Fog Devils of the QMJHL. Follow him on Twitter @adampuddicombe.