Walling: AHL close to returning to St. John's after six years

Alex J. Walling
6/2/2011 10:42:33 PM
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Newfoundland, which has plenty of Moose, is getting one more. The Manitoba Moose are coming to the Rock.

The Manitoba Moose will re-locate to the capital city of Newfoundland, St. John's. So getting an NHL team in Winnipeg has had vibrations some 3,000 kilometres away.

The man who is leading the push for St. John's is none other than maybe the most popular politician in the history of Newfoundland, the former Premier Danny Williams.

Williams has been negotiating with True North for the last few months in anticipation of Winnipeg getting an NHL team.

It seems the negotiations have paid off. He has an agreement in principle.

The St. John's Telegram says a tentative agreement is in place between Williams and True North Sports - the owners of the Manitoba Moose - and that True North has agreed to house its American League team at Mile One Centre for the 2011-12 AHL season.

The St. John's Sports and Entertainment Centre is meeting to approve a deal between the body in charge of Mile One and the Williams group. The deal will be approved.

The St. John's Maple Leafs, the farm club to Toronto, was the last AHL team to call Mile One Centre home and they left at the end of the 2004-05 campaign.

If there is one place in Atlantic Canada where the AHL worked and will work, it is St. John's.

In covering the AHL in the 1990's and 2000's for TSN, I've been to Newfoundland often and they were lined up three deep in the old Memorial Stadium.

The Leafs were in the AHL from 1991 until 2005. They played in Memorial Stadium until the spring of 2001 and in the fall moved into a then-brand new stadium until 2005. In fact in their first season the team went to the finals of the AHL championship, losing in game seven to Adirondack.

The Saint John Flames and St. John's Leafs were the last two teams to be in the AHL in Eastern Canada. The Flames left in 2003 and the Baby Leafs lasted until 2005.

It should be pointed out that while low attendance was the norm for many teams that were in the league that was not the case in Saint John, NB and St. John's, NL.

The Flames had a new building, Harbour Station, in their tenure and captured the Calder Cup 10 years ago last weekend.

Same with the Leafs who went from one of the oldest arenas in Canada to a brand new Mile One Centre and the crowds kept coming.

Transportation and other factors became an issue.

When there were six or seven franchises in the Maritimes and Atlantic Canada, road teams could schedule a week's worth of games and drastically reduce cost.

But when only Saint John and St. John's remained, transportation and many road trips became an issue.

The AHL had teams in Halifax, Moncton, Saint John, Sydney, PEI, Fredericton and St. John's in its life starting with the Nova Scotia Vees in 1971 and concluding with the Baby Leafs in 2005.

So the expression in Newfoundland - a province with a lot of Moose - will be "Danny (Williams) got his Moose," although they may not keep the name.

The deal will see Williams leasing the team from True North Sports and Entertainment for a four- or five-year term from the group who have operated the Moose in Winnipeg over the last 15 years.

With the transfer of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg the Moose came in the market for a new home and St. John's entered negotiations to have the team in Newfoundland.

Former Leaf executive Bill Watters once told me "this is one of the best places to put a farm team in. It's a small city, people are passionate about hockey and players (just like Toronto) are viewed through the eyes of a microscope."

Negotiations between Williams and True North hit a snag last week when the provincial government (Williams' former government) turned down a request to provide $500,000 to help cover travel cost.

They overcame that hurdle to reach an agreement. Perhaps the price of tickets will be raised to cover the $500,000.

Williams says he is "on the hook" for the $500,000. He hopes to get the $500,000 from tickets and corporate sponsorships. He says "it was just too good of an opportunity not to go for it."

The fact that Williams had the support of the St. John's Sports and Entertainment group is interesting because there was fighting and rancor when the St. John's Fog Devils of the QMJHL came in the fall of 2005.

It has been said the reasons why Major Junior hockey did not work in this city is the in-fighting with this board and lack of proper promotion of the team.

Danny Williams is a doer, from being the premier who didn't take his salary (he gave it to charity) to naming the arena Mile One Stadium.

He is a hockey fan, if not fanatic, and has been negotiating this deal for months and although there is nothing down on paper he has an agreement in principle with True North and the body that runs Mile One.

As for a name, one thing is certain and that is it won't be the Moose.

"There are too many negatives surrounding the name in the province," says Williams. "We don't need reports saying a Moose struck a car or someone was killed by a Moose," he says.

Brian Rogers is the former play-by-play man for the St. John's Leafs and he is ecstatic. "It's a great day, it's a glorious day as the AHL is returning to this city," he told TSN.ca.

Darrell Murphy worked at the Memorial Stadium doing concessions and security and tells TSN.ca "Hockey in a high form of the AHL is coming back. Just like the good old days of the early 90's," he says.

As for a name, Williams says the team will wear the colours of the Winnipeg team, whatever they may be, and may hold a "name the team" contest.

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

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

Manitoba Moose (Photo: TSN)


(Photo: TSN)
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