AHL return has St. John’s celebrating

by Lindsay Kramer || for NHL.com

The city of St. John’s, Newfoundland, casts different images depending upon the perspective of its viewers.

To visiting American Hockey League players, "The Rock" emerges from the ocean as their team plane lowers from the clouds and heads toward a landing. If they are lucky, that is. Should the land mass not come into sight, it probably means the team is touching down in a blizzard or the fog that seems to constantly shroud the island.

To the faithful who live there, the city is a warm, neighborly community bound by a long list of factors, of which passion for hockey ranks near the top.

Keith McCambridge has seen it both ways. As a former player for the Saint John Flames, McCambridge many times swept into the city as a rival. Now, as the first head coach of the St. John’s IceCaps, he’s simply swept away by the local fervor for the new American Hockey League team.

"You could see and sense the passion of the fans. It wasn’t an easy place to play," McCambridge told NHL.com. "Knowing this is your home, knowing this is where the IceCaps are going to play out of, it’s not your typical Canadian city."

And to this point, it’s far from your typical AHL franchise. The Rock is back in the league, and everyone who lives there wants a piece of the new team.

St. John’s is the hottest show going in the standings and at the gate. The team paces the Atlantic Division and the entire league with 25 points. It has sold out all eight of its home games at Mile One Centre, cramming an average of 6,315 bodies into a rink that lists capacity as 6,247.

"Hockey is important in St. John’s," AHL president Dave Andrews told NHL.com. "It’s an extremely passionate hockey market. The IceCaps are the prime entertainment option there. It’s really a neat place to be."

All the noise streaming through the rafters in Mile One these days sounds even more deafening set against the backdrop of the last few quiet winters.

The Toronto Maple Leafs operated their AHL affiliate out of St. John’s from 1991-2005. According to Andrews, the community in Newfoundland consistently did its part to keep the franchise viable.

"It was always successful in St. John’s. It never went bad," Andrews said.

But eventually the parent club wanted an affiliate in its back yard, and moved its prospects into renovated Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto. That put a little extra chill and isolation into the St. John’s air. The city briefly housed a QMJHL team, but as a substitute for the AHL that product fell short.

"It was brutal," said IceCaps broadcaster Brian Rogers, who also held the same job for the St. John’s Maple Leafs. "Let’s face it. This is a vibrant city. Winter can be harsh at times. But when conditions are right, it’s a great thing."

Rogers, who lived in St. John’s between AHL franchises, said locals frequently asked him during the hiatus if that league would ever return.

"People would stop you in the supermarket or streets and say, ‘What do you think?"’ Rogers told NHL.com. "I said, ‘Yeah, I believe someday it will come back.’ I always thought it would work again if the right fit was there."

Andrews, too, kept leaning toward the optimistic side — but even he had his doubts about how realistic that view was.

"I’m really pleased that we are there (now)," he said. "But the outlook for attracting a team to St. John’s after 04-05 was fairly bleak."

Rays of hope finally broke through again after last season. Credit the first save in IceCaps history to the NHL’s new Winnipeg Jets.

When the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg in the summer, it created the bonds of a partnership that reached across Canada. Because of the Jets’ arrival, Manitoba lost its AHL team. When Winnipeg sought an affiliate, St. John’s was in the front row with its hands raised.

The Jets owned the franchise that used to be the Moose, and management had a long-standing relationship with Glenn Stanford, who worked with the St. John’s Maple Leafs. Stanford is long-time friends with St. John’s native Danny Williams, a former Premier of Newfoundland who was instrumental in bringing the Maple Leafs to St. John’s and in the building of Mile One.

It all set up as pretty as a tic-tac-toe power-play score. The Jets leased the franchise to Williams, who became the team’s president. Williams hired Stanford as its chief operating officer. The Jets found a supportive home for their prospects. St. John’s landed a link to an exciting new NHL team in a fellow Canadian city.

"Their success has been our success," Williams said of the Jets. "We rode the wave. They have been a big stimulus for us. The stars were aligned with Winnipeg. If that hadn’t happened, we may never have had a team here."

But even Williams couldn’t have guessed how far and deep that pipeline of excitement would run. He said corporate sponsorship, sparked by the uptick in the petroleum industry and the retail housing boom, is well over $2.5 million.

Williams also said about 4,800 season ticket packages have been sold. Of those, roughly 3,000 are three-year commitments. He said every home game should be sold out at least through Christmas, if not far beyond.

"I’d be wrong to say I expected it to be sold out every night," Williams told NHL.com. "We marketed this hard. It didn’t just happen. We’ve driven every seat."

The Jets, following through on their promise to give the IceCaps fans a winning product, have ridden shotgun in that venture.

"I think the biggest difference is the organization that put the AHL team here actually cares," Rogers said. "The Winnipeg Jets organization, there’s a passion to create a much better environment. There’s a good feeling now that something special is brewing."

There’s a price to be paid for that, however, one likely steeper than that of any other AHL team.

St. John’s can’t do anything about its location, and Williams said his travel budget exceeds $1 million. And that doesn’t factor in how the distant journeys wear on the players.

"You look at any AHL team, there’s travel involved," McCambridge said. "It’s not bad. It’s what everybody expected. It’s a matter, from our side of things, (that) players get rest when they need rest."

And it’s also easier to endure long road trips when you know what kind of fan support waits upon your return.

"I’m getting thank yous. Thank yous for doing this. Thanks for getting the team back. They are very grateful," Williams said. "It’s a real feel-good, win-win situation. I just say, ‘Hockey is as much my love as it is yours."