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Moose moniker to crash on the Rock

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ST. JOHN'S -- A decade ago, Danny Williams narrowed his future plans down to two options: run for premier, or run a minor pro hockey team.

Now it appears he'll have the chance to do both.

The lawyer and cable television mogul-turned-politician -- Williams served seven years as Newfoundland and Labrador premier before stepping down in December -- is the driving force behind the plan that seems likely to have the AHL Moose skating in St. John's this coming season.

 

"I just felt this was too good an opportunity to let it go," Williams told reporters this week. "And we just went at it with a vengeance."

The former premier's enthusiasm for hockey is well known on the Rock. He played with the Oxford University Blues while on a Rhodes scholarship. Before entering politics, he served as vice-chairman of the board for the St. John's Maple Leafs -- the city's first AHL incarnation -- and still enjoys a regular skate.

So far, the dominoes have lined up. The confirmation of the Thrashers move to Winnipeg from Atlanta, and what Williams calls "tentative bilateral agreements" with True North Sports and Entertainment and the City of St. John's, have all clicked into place.

On Thursday, city councillors unanimously ratified in principle a lease agreement for 6,250-seat Mile One Centre, the arena for which Williams paid $1 million for the naming rights a decade ago. Next step is approval by the AHL board of governors.

Local reaction to Williams's apparent bagging of the Moose has been mostly positive. More than 2,500 people hit "like" on the team's Facebook page within the first 24 hours, engaging in a vigorous (and at times comical) debate on possible names and logos. "Loving it," Fraser Butler posted. "Way to go Danny!"

For his part, Williams says the Moose moniker is history. He cited the negative press associated with often-fatal moose-vehicle collisions on the province's highways.

But the path hasn't been entirely without obstacles. Wherever Danny Williams goes, drama is sure to follow. And in this case, the requisite conflict involved an ever-widening rift between Williams and his successor as premier, Kathy Dunderdale.

Last week, Williams expressed wonderment at the Dunderdale administration's decision not to provide a $500,000 travel subsidy to the team. (St. John's Sports and Entertainment, the city council body that owns Mile One, made the request.)

He noted this was the city's "last shot" at an AHL team, before adding: "I can lead a horse to water but I can't make her drink, and if that's the case there's not much I can do."

The government held firm. Williams threatened to walk but ultimately rejigged revenue projections -- through higher ticket prices and corporate sponsorships -- to make the numbers work to his satisfaction.

AHL hockey has been successful in the city before. The Baby Leafs made a Cinderella run to Game 7 of the Calder Cup final in their very first season, 1991-92, playing to packed houses in the charming but dilapidated Memorial Stadium. Attendance remained strong, averaging between 4,800 and 5,000 in the team's last three seasons.

The Baby Leafs left town in 2005, less than four years after the city built Mile One to house the club. The decision came down to Toronto management wanting the team closer to home, in the MLSE-owned Ricoh Coliseum, a seven-minute drive from the Air Canada Centre.

A Quebec major junior team, the Fog Devils, came and left St. John's, lasting just three seasons. Since then, fans have had to make do with provincial senior hockey (playoff games routinely sell out and the aptly named Clarenville Caribous won this year's national championship, the Allan Cup).

The AHL has changed greatly since St. John's last go-around. In 1993-94, there were six AHL teams in Atlantic Canada alone. This season, just four of the league's 30 squads were based in Canada, none farther east than Toronto. Travel will be a concern, with parent club Winnipeg roughly 3,000 kilometres away.

But today, St. John's has a bit of a swagger. The city's unemployment rate is just 5.7 per cent -- better than Calgary's. An offshore oil boom is swelling Newfoundland's coffers. The province has attained so-called "have" status, while Ontario is a "have not."

With have-not no more, why not another shot at the AHL? Williams thinks the time is right.

"Hockey fans are very keen in Newfoundland and Labrador," he told reporters this week. "I think it will work."

The former premier and longtime hockey enthusiast will soon find out if he is right.

 

Rob Antle is a reporter and associate editor with Atlantic Business Magazine, based in St. John's and covering the four Atlantic provinces.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 4, 2011 A18

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