While the entire hockey world locks its eyes on the looming Seattle Kraken expansion draft, a situation is brewing in St. John’s, Newfoundland that could have serious repercussions on the Toronto Maple Leafs minor league development system if it boils over.
But first, since is the first Report from the Rock in several weeks, we have some news and notes to cover before we get into a deep dive on the ongoing dispute between the Newfoundland Growlers ownership group and St. John’s City Council.
First up, a quick mention here that the Leafs recently hired Ryan Hardy as Senior Director of Minor League Operations.
We’ve hired Ryan Hardy as Senior Director of Minor League Operations. #LeafsForever
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) June 25, 2021
In essence, Hardy will be the GM of the Growlers, more on him and what this means for the Leafs organization as a whole here.
Another minor piece of news, but a cool one to see nonetheless, after three years of existence, the Growlers Twitter account was verified.
Round of applause for our new checkmark
— Newfoundland Growlers (@NLGrowlers) July 13, 2021
Now that they’re certified as a real and legitimate team on social media, it means they can never leave right? ….. right?
Finally, a brand-new piece of news hit yesterday afternoon with the announcement that Growlers head coach John Snowden has been promoted to the Marlies bench.
We've hired John Snowden as an assistant coach. #ForeverStartsHere
— Toronto Marlies (@TorontoMarlies) July 18, 2021
Snowden began his tenure with the Growlers as an assistant coach during the inaugural season, but stepped up to the role as bench boss in January 2019 after head coach Ryane Clowe was unable to continue his duties due to medical reasons. Snowden went on to coach the team through a championship run that saw the Growlers raise the Kelly Cup.
His promotion to the AHL is well deserved, but his replacement as Growlers head coach has not yet been announced, adding even more uncertainty to the already-muddied future of the Growlers.
With that, let’s take a deeper dive into the drama I alluded to above.
The Case of St. John’s v. Deacon Sports & Entertainment
This is a mess.
Let’s try to unpack this in chronological order. First off, for the uninitiated, the home arena of the Newfoundland Growlers is the Mile One Centre. The arena is owned and operated by the city council of St. John’s, and it is an ageing building in dire need of some modernization.
It is my understanding that, on multiple occasions, Deacon Sports & Entertainment (the Newfoundland Growlers’ ownership group) inquired about the possibility of purchasing the arena from the city. In doing so, they would be removing any and all taxpayer liability to the cost of refurbishing the building and securing a permanent home for the Leafs’ ECHL affiliate team (St. John’s city council has not been overly accomodating to previous tenants of Mile One Centre in the past).
However, despite the repeated inquiries and an informal offer, St. John’s has been reluctant to even enter negotiations. (The Growlers’ vision for the future of Mile One Centre has been made public and can be found here.)
Another issue now facing the Deacon Sports group is the council’s pushback on entering fair negotiations on a simple lease agreement. Another ownership group (Atlantic Sport & Entertainment) had been, until this upcoming season, operating a basketball team, the St. John’s Edge (of the National Basketball League of Canada), out of Mile One Centre. The story has been ongoing since the pandemic began, and some details have gotten lost in the weeds, but as it stands now, the Edge owe a debt to the city and are unable to pay it.
Deacon Sports put forward a proposal to assume ownership of the Edge franchise and absolve the outstanding debt, but the city has instead entered negotiations with another investment group that seeks to bring a basketball team playing in the American Basketball Association, a semi-professional league, to the city.
The story is ongoing and growing more complicated every day, the city has released a statement on the situation (here), to which the Growlers organization has issued a response (here). I’ll also leave a link to a CBC article which sums up the situation as a whole (here) but the bottom line is this: the city council of St. John’s has proven themselves, once again, to be completely inept at operating a sports arena and making the city a viable place for a sports team to make a long-term home.
Unless something changes in a major way, it’s only a matter of time before the Growlers are chased out of town by these people who have proven, time and time again, to lack the basic business sense needed to collaborate with professional sports organizations. Even the city’s longtime sports mascot has issued a cry for help.
Save our sports teams.
— Buddy the Puffin (@Buddy_ThePuffin) July 17, 2021
The ECHL offseason is in full swing, however, until a lease with Mile One or a deal on the building’s purchase can be finalized, the Growlers are essentially blocked from making transactions, be it free agent signings, trades, or players getting assigned to the team from further up the ladder in the Maple Leafs organization.