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Walling: Pro hockey returns to St. John's in a big way

Alex J. Walling
1/28/2012 1:02:26 PM
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They celebrated in Winnipeg when the Jets returned and on a per capita population basis the noise was as least as loud in the furthest easterly Canadian province of Newfoundland.

You see, the move back to Winnipeg also meant the move back to St. John's and the return of the American Hockey League to that provincial capital.

In fact, it is a near duplication. The Jets returned to Winnipeg, making them a rare team in recent memory to come back to the NHL (Colorado came back having the Rockies before the Avalanche) and the St. John's franchise became the first team to make it back to an American Hockey League city, a city where they had success.

The St. John's IceCaps were announced on June 9 by the folks in Winnipeg. A day later they sold a thousand season tickets to kick off the season ticket campaign and they have been riding high since.

"It's been quite a season," Glenn Stanford, the Chief Operating Officer of the franchise, told TSN.ca. "We got word on June 9 and having been running full throttle ever since."

They certainly have. They have played 22 games thus far this season at home and have recorded 22 sellouts at Mile One Stadium, which holds around 6,400 per game.

Even though that is not the biggest building in the AHL the IceCaps are leading the entire league in total attendance.

On the ice the teams ranks first in their Atlantic Division and third in the entire 30-team league.

The American Hockey League was in Atlantic Canada from 1971 with the Nova Scotia Voyageurs until 2005 when the St. John's Maple Leafs left. A total of 34 years went by and at times had as many as six teams in.

The AHL basically did not work attendance-wise in Halifax, Moncton, PEI (Charlottetown), and Fredericton but did have success in Sydney (Cape Breton Oilers) and the John's (Saint John Flames and the St. John's Leafs).

In fact, St. John's is the place where the AHL may have excelled the most. With standing room only and two or three rows deep of fervent fans the AHL came to St. John's in 1991. They played at the old Memorial Stadium; a relic that was built in 1948 and still had old wooden bleachers when the St. John's Leafs came into the AHL in 1991.

In their first year the Baby Leafs went to the AHL Calder Cup finals, losing in game seven. All seven games saw the visiting team win the games, a bit of an oddity.

Mile One Stadium came into being in May of 2001 and hosted the Baby Leafs from 2001-05 and for a few seasons, the defunct St. John's Fog Devils of the QMJHL.

The IceCaps have sold over 3,500 season tickets, which may be a record for an AHL team.

Most teams holding a hockey game have a 50/50 draw. Some places raise a couple of hundred dollars - a few, a thousand bucks or more. But the average 50/50 draw so far this season is $30,000, giving $15,000 as a prize.

"Imagine that, some guy pays a few bucks for a ticket and walks about a couple of hours later with 15 thousand," says Stanford.

The AHL never really left Newfoundland and of all the centres in Atlantic Canada that had a team in the AHL this could have been its best franchise.

"John Ferguson, then General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, pulled the farm team from St. John's for player development reasons," says Dave Andrews, president of the AHL. "It certainly wasn't a case of people not supporting the team."

Robin Short, the sports editor of the St. John's Telegram, told TSN.ca that people missed pro hockey and wanted it back, and the sellouts demonstrate that.

"These people here love the American Hockey League. It is between us and Saint John as to the best franchise ever. Fans here will not let this opportunity go by. It's pretty hard to have a team move when they are sold out every game."

Advertising dollars, which mean so much, are coming in and they may lead the league in "rink board" advertising.

"Clients are supporting this team and there is a feeling that the IceCaps lead the league, if there is such a distinction, in rink board ads."

The IceCaps have a very popular figure as President of the team.

"The former and perhaps the most popular Premier ever in Danny Williams is our president and he is doing a great job. Everybody does know of the ex-Premier and he sells and sells this team. It's been a great start," Stanford tells TSN.ca.

The games are broadcast home and away with former Baby Leaf play-by-play man Brian Rodgers behind the mike and the interest is great.

Many years ago while watching a St. John's Leafs game, then-Leaf employee Bill Watters told me "St. John's may be the best place to have a farm team. The people are passionate about hockey here and this place is small enough that players are recognized all over the place. They are scrutinized just like in Toronto. It's a great training ground, not only for NHL hockey, but for dealing with fans, media and other factors."

The first season is half over and it's been a dream ride so far.

For TSN.ca I'm Alex J. Walling.

Alex J can be reached via email at:  ajw@eastlink.ca

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