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St. John’s ECHL affiliate for the Maple Leafs is in limbo

What’s going on in the quest to bring the Leafs ECHL franchise to St. John’s?

St. John's Maple Leafs at Hamilton Bulldogs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, we passed along the news that the Maple Leafs were reported to be in on a deal to bring an ECHL franchise to St. John’s, Newfoundland for next season.

Since then the process has hit a legal snag and may be falling victim to local politics as well.

The arena in St. John’s, the Mile One Centre, is owned by a corporation called St. John’s Sports and Entertainment (SJSE), which is in turn owned by the city itself, but run by a board of directors.

The only current sports tenant in Mile One is the St. John’s Edge, a basketball team in the National Basketball League of Canada. This is a league with a group of teams in Atlantic Canada and another group in small cities in Ontario.

The owners of the Edge also own the rights to lease Mile One for hockey for another year. They have sought a team to move to St. John’s, focusing on junior hockey, but they have failed to find any team that wants to move, and the QMJHL has not expressed any interest in expansion. No one believes an AHL team is viable there anymore.

Meanwhile, a competing group led by former executives with the AHL team that used to occupy the arena has reportedly struck a deal with the ECHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs and is ready to go for next season. They sought to break the Edge group’s hold on the lease rights to Mile One by demanding an exception be invoked to the exclusivity clause because they have a team and the rights holders don’t.

The Edge group countered by demanding the matter go to arbitration.

A few days ago, Robin Short of The Telegram in St. John’s wrote a column harshly criticizing the board of SJSE and council for not acting in the city’s interest by getting a paying customer into the arena this coming season.

One of the duties of St. John’s Sports and Entertainment, one could assume, is to be a purveyor of Mile One, a facility owned by the people of St. John’s.

To turn down business of this degree is clearly a breach of that responsibility.

So here we go: if the current ECHL deal goes south — and Mile One loses out on hockey next season and the critical 40 dates attracting people to a moribund downtown which could use a little shot in the arm — the SJSE board from top to bottom has to go.

The mayor of St. John’s didn’t like that. He responded in a letter to The Telegram:

Mr. Short appears to be most anxious for SJSE to make a deal, quickly, with one of the parties interested in bringing hockey to Mile One. I can assure the public that the city, our council and the board of SJSE are committed to seeing hockey return to Mile One. To make that happen, I personally have been involved in many discussions with all parties. We have in no way “thumbed our nose” at any of the parties interested in a management agreement or a hockey franchise for Mile One. Our goal is to do what is best for the facility and, more importantly, for the residents of St. John’s who support that facility in the form of an operational subsidy.

I would like to reassure the public that council is acutely aware of the benefits of having a hockey home tenant at Mile One and of a management arrangement that could potentially reduce our subsidy. The current lease arrangement between SJSE and The Edge ownership group contains an exclusivity clause for bringing a hockey team to Mile One. That group has challenged the exclusivity clause and we are awaiting arbitration to settle that dispute. SJSE cannot negotiate a lease for a hockey team with any group until that dispute is settled.

To an outside observer this all looks like a process that just needs to run its course, and the obvious decision will be made to lease the arena to the nice people who actually have a team instead of the other nice people who just really wish they did.

According to other comments from Short, he believes the arbitration process has not started at all.

It’s not clear, however, if the ECHL has a deadline on this decision or what the date might be. They are no strangers to tortured relocation or expansion processes. Their two most recent new teams have used relocation of an existing franchise as the method of startup. Both the Maine Mariners, who start playing this fall, and the Jacksonville Icemen, who are just completing their first season, were purchased from other cities and left dormant for a year.

In the case of the Mariners, the relocation of the Alaska Aces was all part of a plan to do major renovations on the arena in Portland, and given that the team is owned by Comcast, they had the funding to proceed without any hiccup. Jacksonville, on the other hand, only has a team because the first relocation fell through.

The Icemen sorted out their re-relocation by February 8 last year, so it’s possible to see that the St. John’s team is in jeopardy of having to wait a year if this does drag on now that it’s already March.

The Maple Leafs could, of course, simply renew the affiliation with the Orlando Solar Bears for another year and wait this out. The Leafs are silent as they always are on this issue, but one reason they may want this move is to exercise more control over the team and to eliminate visa delays when they move players up or down from the Marlies. One more year of status quo is not going to worry the Leafs unduly.

It does seem like the city of St. John’s is the loser if this arbitration drags on to the point that the end result is no team for next season. Another consideration for the city is that Mile One is 17 years old already, and eventually they will want to renovate it. Having a partner with a lot of money is always a good idea when that need arises. Whatever happens, this is just another lesson that when hockey arenas are involved, politics is always there too.