'The start of something big': Looking back at the St. John's IceCaps, 10 years after their debut

·7 min read
Young St. John's IceCaps fans cheer on the team at Mile One Stadium in St. John's, on Oct. 24, 2012. (The Canadian Press - image credit)
Young St. John's IceCaps fans cheer on the team at Mile One Stadium in St. John's, on Oct. 24, 2012. (The Canadian Press - image credit)
The Canadian Press
The Canadian Press

Ever since the night of Oct. 14, 2011, St. John's hockey fan Dwan Street has viewed her seats in Section 102 of Mile One Centre as her second home.

It was the first home game for the St. John's IceCaps, a team stepping onto fresh ice in front of 7,000 fans for the city's first professional hockey game since 2004. Street says she'll never forget the energy in the building as a light show featuring the team's logo danced around the ice, and Thin Lizzy's The Boys are Back in Town played over loudspeakers.

"I think that the place was packed from Day 1," Street said. "There was definitely an energy for a fan base that had been kind of hockey-starved at that point."

The first game was a moment seven years in the making, beginning when the Toronto Maple Leafs' St. John's affiliate — affectionately known as the "baby Leafs" — left the city after 14 seasons.

Following a brief stint with the St. John's Fog Devils of the Quebec Major Junior League, from 2005 to 2008, fans saw AHL hockey return to the province in 2011.

Street remembers getting the news that Danny Williams had bought the Manitoba Moose and was moving the team to St. John's like it was yesterday.

Alex Kennedy/CBC
Alex Kennedy/CBC

"My partner at the time must have thought I was nuts," Street said. "I ran out. I was just jumping on the bed, I was like 'Danny bought the Moose! Danny bought the Moose!'

"When we got that news, it was huge. It was definitely the start of something big."

Former Newfoundland and Labrador premier Williams — the team's CEO from 2011 to 2015 — had just left a life in politics and was approached by hockey executive Glenn Stanford, former vice-president of hockey operations of the St. John's Maple Leafs.

Williams, reflecting on the team's time in Newfoundland, can hardly believe it's been 10 years already.

"We had a great run with that team, I must say," Williams said. "It was an exciting time in the city."

One good (re)turn deserves another

Pro hockey's return to St. John's was made possible thanks to another pro franchise's homecoming.

The NHL's Winnipeg Jets were a staple of Manitoba sports from 1972 to 1996, before moving to Phoenix to become the Coyotes. Fifteen years later, the Atlanta Thrashers announced the team would be relocating to Manitoba and would assume the Jets' name.

"We were able to kind of ride on that hype and all that energy. We've got this brand new team here," said Williams. "There was a general excitement in the country, on the west side of the country and on the east side of the country, that these two things were happening in sequence."

Alex Kennedy/CBC
Alex Kennedy/CBC

Once the team was established in Winnipeg, Williams said, the deal to house the team's AHL affiliate in St. John's came together quickly. The two groups reached the deal in May 2011, with the promise the team would be on the ice in September.

"It was hectic.… Fortunately Glenn Stanford had over 20 years' experience in the AHL. So he knew what had to be done and what we needed to get done to get a team on the ice," he said.

He also remembers trying to figure out how to make the team work financially in the province, which faced the unique challenge of being a hockey team located on an island over 4,000 kilometres from its parent team in Winnipeg.

"When we first looked at the finances, it didn't work," Williams said.

"Before we ever opened an office or hired an individual, we had a million dollars for the franchise fee, a million dollars for travel and a million dollars for the rental of the facility. So even though if we didn't get the attendance, it could have been a losing proposition. We went for it, and we never looked back."

St. John's IceCaps
St. John's IceCaps

The team got off to a hot start, making it to the third round of the Calder Cup playoffs in its first season. The IceCaps then made it to the cup final two years later, losing in five games to the Texas Stars.

And the team did get the attendance it was hoping for; its devoted fan base led the league in attendance for three consecutive seasons.

Forward Jason King of Corner Brook, with the franchise since Day 1, said he will always remember being part of the team.

"It was exciting to come to the rink every day," said King, now an assistant coach of the Vancouver Canucks.

"As players, you always feed off the crowd.… St. John's isn't a great big market, but it felt like everybody was just so embraced in what was happening."

CBC
CBC

As the local guy on the team, King said, it was part of his job as a player and later an assistant coach to show new players around the city, take them to the best restaurants and help them learn more about Newfoundland and Labrador culture.

Several current NHLers were part of that group of fresh faces beginning their careers in the city, including Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who won the 2020 Vezina Trophy, awarded to the NHL's best goalie.

Hellebuyck, who was an AHL all-star during his single season with the IceCaps, looks back fondly on his time on the Rock.

"I just remember … thinking, 'This is going to be a really fun experience, a really cool experience," Hellebuyck said from Winnipeg.

"There's so much history in that little town, and you can feel it.… The town is in itself unexplainable."

Hellebuyck also credits IceCaps fans for rallying around him and his teammates during his tenure and development as a pro goalie.

"The crowds loved hockey, and they loved the 'Caps. I just remember them being the type of crowd that you want to play in front of every single night."

'St. John's is a hockey town'

The IceCaps underwent a change in 2015, switching affiliations from Winnipeg to Montreal after Jets executives pulled the team out of the province due to logistics and travel costs.

The Canadiens iteration of the IceCaps lasted two seasons before the team moved to Laval, Que.

However, the wait for pro hockey to return to St. John's would be much shorter than before, with the introduction of the Newfoundland Growlers of the ECHL in 2018. Affiliated with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team won the league's Kelly Cup in its first season.

Alex Kennedy/CBC
Alex Kennedy/CBC

Although the ties between the Maple Leafs and St. John's span almost three decades, Growlers chair Dean McDonald said work done by the IceCaps organization and its fans were key in helping pro hockey grow to where it now stands in the province.

"The history helps, and there's a good base. [The Maple Leafs] are looking at the fan base here and they know it's a big hockey town," McDonald said.

Williams said the legacy of the IceCaps is the role it played in building the province's interest in hockey.

"Newfoundland and Labrador is a hockey province, St. John's is a hockey town. So if you put a good product on the ice, and you deliver for people, they'll support it. And the fans certainly did here.… It's not a hard sell if you got a good team."

Heading into a new ECHL season, and a return from a COVID-19-caused absence for the Growlers, Dwan Street said she feels a renewed sense of energy in the local sports scene and the team's fan base.

"It's definitely a good time to be a hockey fan in St. John's."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting