CP: AHL thriving again in St. John’s

by Chris Johnston || Canadian Press

(CP) — As the Toronto Marlies took a bus ride through the snow-covered streets of St. John’s, Nfld., on Thursday afternoon, coach Dallas Eakins was filled with warm memories.

It had been some time since he last visited a city that finds itself back in the AHL loop after a long wait. While one of the lasting memories Eakins carries of St. John’s is the quality of its people, he wasn’t anticipating a very welcome reception with the Marlies set to face the IceCaps in games Friday and Saturday.

“I think there’s going to be some emotions from the fans one way or the other that the organization that ended up leaving the city is back,” Eakins said. “It should be a wonderful two-game series.”

The departure of the Toronto Maple Leafs affiliate in 2005 left a big void in the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador that has only recently been filled by the arrival of the IceCaps.

Fans have overwhelmingly embraced the new team, cramming the Mile One Centre to more than capacity over the first 10 home games. In return, the people have been rewarded with a 12-3-3 start that has given St. John’s a share of first place overall in the AHL.

The enthusiastic reception from the community has clearly rubbed off on the hockey team.

“When you’re out at the grocery stores or at the restaurants people come up and talk to you,” said IceCaps coach Keith McCambridge. “They’re excited to have the American Hockey League back in St. John’s. It’s been really good. … I look at it as a smaller scale of what’s taken place in Winnipeg – just the excitement of what they had [coming] back again.

“It seems to be they appreciate it even that much more.”

The relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg in May set off a chain reaction that led to the creation of the IceCaps. They became the Jets’ affiliate after a subsequent move by the Manitoba Moose.

While there was no doubt St. John’s could support a team, the IceCaps – like the St. John’s Maple Leafs before them – have to contend with logistical challenges.

Connecting flights in Toronto are the norm and virtually every road trip ends up lasting more than a week. The team is also located almost 5,000 kilometres away from the parent club in Winnipeg.

McCambridge credits Jets management for making an effort to help bridge the geographical gap.

“Every one of our games we’ve had either [Jets GM] Kevin Cheveldayoff or [Jets assistant GM] Craig Heisinger and all of the scouts have been in,” he said. “We’ve had somebody from Winnipeg at every single game, at least one person in attendance. They’re visible when they come down, they have a chance to talk to the guys, so it’s been great.

“It’s been the best I’ve seen where they’re making sure that the team knows that they’re keeping close tabs on them.”

Both the Marlies and IceCaps have had to deal with losing players to NHL callups. The Maple Leafs are now carrying three players that started the year in the AHL while the Jets have four.

Even still, they remain among the better teams in the league with the North Division-leading Marlies (10-5-3) riding a four-game win streak heading into the two-game series against the Atlantic Division leaders.

Eakins will always have a soft spot for St. John’s after a 20-game stint there as a player in 1998-99. At the time, he was on a one-way deal with the Maple Leafs but found himself headed to the AHL after being the odd man out on defence.

Initially, he was upset about the situation. That changed once he arrived on The Rock.

“I really embraced it,” Eakins said. “The people in town were so generous and so kind and always wanted to have a chat about whatever the topic of the day was. I just found it such a friendly place to live.

“And as friendly as it is and as kind as they are, they’re extremely hard-working rugged people here. I think this town rubs off on its hockey teams.”

That being said, he understands why the Maple Leafs organization ended up making the decision to end a 14-year run in St. John’s by moving their farm team closer to home.

In his current role, he sees a lot of benefits in having the prospects playing just down the road from Air Canada Centre.

“St. John’s was a wonderful market, these people here treated the Toronto players so great,” Eakins said. “They’re so passionate about hockey and I know the abundance of the people in this town are Toronto Maple Leafs fans. I know that was a bitter pill for them to swallow, but it was for the good of the organization.

“I’m just glad that they’ve got a team back here. And I’m glad that they’re supporting it.”