Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

IceCaps sticking around St. John's

Jets' plan to relocate AHL affiliate delayed

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THE Winnipeg Jets want their AHL prospects playing closer to home but have postponed a decision with Wednesday's announcement they'll stay in St. John's an extra year.

The Jets' AHL affiliate will remain in the Newfoundland and Labrador capital through the end of 2015-16.

"Certainly we're happy with the arrangement and the affiliation agreement and how our players have been treated and the quality of the organization," Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said Wednesday. "We've talked about the logistical concerns and those certainly still remain from a geographical standpoint -- the time and the travel -- but at the end of the day we're excited to be able to partner with them and know that our players are playing in a first-class city and with a first-class organization. What happens long-term, those things at the AHL level are always very fluid."

The original deal when the AHL's Manitoba Moose moved to St. John's and became the IceCaps in 2011 -- after the NHL relocated the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg to become the Jets -- was for three years. True North Sports & Entertainment, which owns both franchises, added a one-year extension, which was to expire at the end of this coming season.

True North chairman Mark Chipman said last winter the organization would be ending its deal in St. John's because the geography of the relationship was too difficult and an opportunity had arisen to become a main tenant in a proposed new arena in Thunder Bay.

The move would put the Jets' top affiliate within driving distance and direct flights of Winnipeg. It would make the movement of players simpler and quicker, as well as making it easier for management and scouts to keep a close eye on the team's prospects.

But the Thunder Bay arena project is not underway and is unlikely to be completed until the start of the 2017-18 hockey season at best. Financing and other negotiations are not finalized for the proposed 5,700-seat facility that is expected to cost $106 million.

"It certainly remains a long-term solution," Cheveldayoff said. "Ultimately, internally what we've talked about is that until we can find a long-term solution, find something that makes sense from the development standpoint, from a logistical standpoint, we're going to take our time and look at all options. Thunder Bay certainly addresses the logistical concerns, the closeness to Winnipeg."

Speculation recently increased that the Manitoba Moose would be reborn next fall and the MTS Centre would be at the very least its temporary home. The Moose existed in Winnipeg between 1996 and the 2011 relocation and became a member of the AHL in 2001.

That's been considered and Cheveldayoff said the club has been contacted by a number of cities proposing an affiliation.

At the start of the Winnipeg-St. John's marriage, IceCaps GM and Jets assistant GM Craig Heisinger said good relationships would overcome the geography. Cheveldayoff said the relationship has not deteriorated.

"There are some geographical things," he said. "Over time, you continue to evaluate those, and economical things and different practical things but as far as relationships go, if the relationships between organizations had soured, we certainly wouldn't be extending our affiliation."

This extension will do two things for the Jets. In the short term, it will give a boost to the team in St. John's, where ticket sales were lagging with the reality of the team's departure at the end of the season. Every game at Mile One Center, the team's home, has been sold out since the franchise moved there.

The other matter for True North is it will let them see how things will evolve with the expected shift of several AHL franchises for the 2015-16 season. No agreement has been finalized but a move is underway by several western NHL clubs to have their affiliates near the West Coast and as many as six teams could be playing in an AHL Pacific division by next fall.

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 4, 2014 D3

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