The AHL’s return: the good, the bad, and the ugly

in Featured/Speaking of Sports by

The AHL is back.

Armed with the imaginatively titled ahlisback.com for its currently nameless team, St. John’s is abuzz at the prospect of seeing the best mediocre pro hockey league in the world back at Mile One.

However, fans have much to consider.

The Good

To begin, there are numerous positives associated with bringing a hockey team back to St. John’s. They’ve been oversold and politicized along the way as Danny Williams and others have postured for money or support from different people and groups, but that shouldn’t ruin the big picture.

They’ve been oversold and politicized along the way … but that shouldn’t ruin the big picture.

The first is the economic spin-off. While it’s idiotic to suggest that outside tourism will be greatly inflated by an AHL team in St. John’s, looking closer to home shows economic benefits.

Bars and restaurants will see increased traffic on game nights, cab companies will be busier, and visiting teams will fill up hotels that normally wouldn’t be so full in the dead of winter. Local charities and community groups will also enjoy a few bucks and freebies, as sports teams have a significant charitable footprint in their hometown.

Another positive is that Mile One Centre is a hockey rink, and it now has a hockey team. Never once as a fan, volunteer with the Leafs, or employee of the Fog Devils, did I say “let’s head down to the Centre.” I always called it a rink, because it is a rink. St. John’s Sports and Entertainment have spent years saying it’s not, and big props to Daniel O’Donnell for keeping my mom and grandmother entertained, but he’s performing at a rink. You needn’t look any further than “sports: coming before “entertainment” in their very own name to see what their priority was when they built the place.

The only sport you’re playing at Mile One is hockey, and it’s a good thing to have an actual team down there doing that.

A third positive is the lease agreement with SJSE. The fact that the team is supposedly going to operate at no increased expense to taxpayers is the right move, something corrected from the first AHL agreement.

Also to their credit, they were reportedly more accommodating in negotiations than in the past, something you can likely chalk up to learning that having a team in your building is more financially viable than having it empty for years at a time. It’s unfortunate that it took three years of hockeyless operation to learn that, but it’s good it was learned at all.

The Bad

Unfortunately it’s not all good.

One of the largest concerns that hasn’t gotten enough attention is the fact that St. John’s and Winnipeg are geographically disastrous partners for an operation often requiring same-day connectivity and transportation. Toronto didn’t like having their farm club in the middle of the North Atlantic, and there are several direct flights from St. John’s every day.

Winnipeg isn’t nearly as accessible and when you factor in harsh, unpredictable weather during hockey season, so this could become more of an issue than people realize.

Also, no one in Newfoundland owns this team. Yes there is a partnership with True North Sports, but they still own the club. Williams said he wants to buy the club in the not-too-distant future, but until he does, nothing is anchoring it to St. John’s long-term, and relocation could be somewhat of a boogeyman if things aren’t working out.

Remember that AHL franchises relocate at the same pace most of us change our underwear. The Leafs were here for 14 years and were the third-oldest franchise in the league when they moved. That’s outrageous.

Before dismissing the notion, remember that AHL franchises relocate at the same pace most of us change our underwear. The Leafs were here for 14 years and were the third-oldest franchise in the league when they moved. That’s outrageous.

Williams saying this is our last shot, while coming across as his most desperate politicking, was actually his most sincere. If it fails this time, be it for fan support, financial problems, or geographic issues, that’s it – game over. Literally.

The Ugly

There is also an element that could end up getting pretty ugly, that being the reputation of St. John’s as a frontrunning town. Fans were spoiled in 1991 with an immediate championship-calibre team, and they seem to think every year goes like that.

Step 1: Crush your foes.

Step 2: Play for championships yearly. Probably win more than you lose.

Step 3: Repeat.

No development, no building. Win now or no one cares. When the Leafs got bad, people lost interest, despite those teams being as entertaining as any – even if it was often for physicality and intimidation instead of actually winning games.

It’s the same deal now. If this club doesn’t see the conference final by 2013 or 2014, people will lose interest. If there’s no Calder Cup by 2015, they’ll be in real trouble.

The nice thing is that Williams, as team president, likely won’t shy away from calling out fair-weather fans or uneducated critics if required. You’d hope he won’t have to, but history isn’t on his side.

What it all means

In the midst of all this, no one knows what the AHL’s return means. It’s been met positively overall, and they’ve sold a surprising number of season tickets already, indicating that the market missed hockey more than many, myself included, thought.

We all have to be aware of what some of the peaks and valleys could be. But at least there’s a hockey team whose peaks and valleys we can, and will continue to, discuss. That’s a refreshing change as it is.