The IceCaps are the toast of the Rock. Since moving from Winnipeg to St. John’s last year, the American Hockey League team has sold out every home game, pulled in a tidy profit and built a loyal following across the province. While AHL clubs in large cities struggle to attract attention, in this remote market of 200,000, the team is the biggest game in town.
It is also one of the most visible symbols of the province’s economic turnaround, an oil and gas-fuelled wealth that’s easy to see. Bars in the city’s compact core, a couple minutes’ walk from the IceCaps home at Mile One Centre, do brisk business; clapboard rowhouses look freshly painted in bright colours; new suburbs ring the city.
So it’s appropriate that Danny Williams, the former premier heavily associated with that prosperity, is in charge of the IceCaps.
He brokered the team’s relocation to Newfoundland and serves as its president, courting sponsors, reviewing finances and checking stocks of merchandise. During the IceCaps’ playoff run last year, he even travelled with them, fraternizing with players over meals and rounds of golf.
“This is a labour of love for me. It’s an opportunity to combine my passion for hockey with my business experience,” Mr. Williams says on a grey, drizzling morning in his corner office on a hilltop overlooking downtown St. John’s. “I’m involved in everything, from soup to nuts.”
The sport has been a constant thread through his life.
He played in minor leagues as a child, captained Oxford University’s team as a Rhodes Scholar, and served on the board of the Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate in the 1990s and 2000s, before the team left St. John’s for Toronto. He even used his team’s puffin mascot for an anti-Stephen Harper photo-op during a feud with the Prime Minister over energy revenues.
He still suits up every Tuesday night for a game of rec-league hockey at St. Bonaventure’s Forum, a low-slung rink behind the neo-classical private Catholic school he attended as a child. At 63, he’s the oldest guy on the team, playing with an assortment of friends and former law partners.
The IceCaps also helped fill a void in his life, lifting him out of a post-politics slump. “Once you step down, you come off this huge treadmill that’s just racing all the time,” he says. “There was a vacuum for probably two or three months where I’d wake up in the morning and go, ‘What do I do now?’”
True North Sports and Entertainment, owners of the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, were bringing the NHL back to Winnipeg and had to move the farm team. They approached Mr. Williams through Glenn Stanford, formerly an executive with the St. John’s Maple Leafs who then was serving as president of the Hamilton Bulldogs.
Mr. Stanford, a Newfoundland native, never stopped looking for a way to bring pro hockey back home. As True North executives negotiated for an NHL team, he called them every few months to keep St. John’s on their radar. In May of 2011, a deal was struck: Mr. Williams leases the IceCaps, taking on expenses and collecting profits.
Craig Heisinger, the team’s general manager, says True North could have kept the franchise closer to Winnipeg, but picked St. John’s because of Mr. Williams and Mr. Stanford, who returned to Newfoundland to become chief operating officer.
“We wanted to play in a … hockey market, where players were held accountable and they played in front of full houses,” he says. “Airplanes can fix geography. If you’ve got people problems, that’s a lot harder to fix.”
So far, that decision is paying off. Mr. Williams won’t say exactly how big his profits are, but they were enough that he could reinvest a million dollars in Mile One Centre, upgrading the locker room and making other improvements. Success shows itself in more anecdotal ways, too. Well-wishers constantly stop players on the street and in restaurants. “Everywhere we go, fans are giving us the high-fives,” says forward Spencer Machacek. “It’s a smaller community, so your team is the team. In St. John’s, you’re kind of the mini-NHL. It’s exciting.”
The team holds training camp in Corner Brook, a paper-mill town of 20,000 nestled amid rugged, low-lying mountains on Newfoundland’s west coast. They practice at the Pepsi Centre, a 3,000-seat rink on a hill overlooking the Bay of Islands, where the roof is corrugated metal and the private boxes are made of plywood, furnished with blue plastic chairs. Curious locals drop in to watch the IceCaps run drills.
“It’s amazing. I always knew Newfoundland could support a pro hockey team,” says Anthony Locke, 20, sporting a Jets hoodie as he sits in the stands behind the IceCaps’ bench.
“It’s everywhere around town,” adds his friend Brandon Crew, 18.
An exhibition game that night, against the Syracuse Crunch, is packed. As the lineups are announced, the loudest applause is for forward Jason King, a Corner Brook native. But even this adulation is eclipsed by the ovation Mr. Williams receives when he performs a ceremonial puck-drop.
The IceCaps lose 4-1, but no one seems put out. After the game, little boys crowd the path to the dressing room, pointing and shouting when they catch a glimpse of a player. Taylor Colbourne, whose grandchildren are among them, enthuses about the quality of play – “it was very, very quick” – and the value of having a team.
“It’s a thing that brings the province together,” says the retired teacher, who made the seven-hour drive to St. John’s last season to watch games. “It also connects us to the rest of Canada. You take a lot of pride in it.”
Arena manager Willie Smith says the team did a tonne ton of community outreach in Corner Brook, from minor hockey clinics to school visits. “We’re tickled pink they were here,” he says. “Danny Williams is a provincial treasure.”
Given all the goodwill he’s accrued in his new life as a hockey impresario, would Mr. Williams ever consider returning to politics? He answers directly – “no” – before whipping off on a tangent about his time in office, in his rapid, lilting diction.
“I miss the people, and I miss the policy side and I miss the strategizing. I miss running the government, to be quite honest with you,” he says. “I think we made a difference in the minds and hearts of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, with regard to their feeling of their sense of place and their sense of themselves.”
He’s talking about politics, but given the way the game permeates his life, it’s hard not to feel he’s talking about hockey, too.