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They came throughout the week to buy ticket to the home opener; a first opportunity at a last chance, as the final American Hockey League team in Atlantic Canada began its long goodbye.

The St. John's Maple Leafs began their home season last week at Mile One Stadium, starting the affair with a short, sentimental film of highlights from the past that elicited cheers and whistles from the crowd of about 5,500 fans. There was but one lone and loud jeer, a sarcastic "Go, Leafs Go" not meant as motivation.

It is the 14th and last season the Baby Leafs will play in this hockey-mad city on The Rock. At the end of this campaign, the club will relocate to the home of the parent National Hockey League team, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

When the club moved here from Newmarket, Ont., in 1991, Cape Breton, Charlottetown, Fredericton, Halifax and Moncton all boasted teams, and Saint John jumped in two years later.

The rivalries were rich and rambunctious and showcased many players destined for NHL stardom -- Larry Robinson of the Nova Scotia Voyagers, Marc Crawford of the Fredericton Express, Brett Hull of the Moncton Golden Flames, Owen Nolan of the Halifax Citadels.

Today, only the Leafs remain, the others casualties of the punishing economic climate.

That same climate has hurt Canadian and small-market NHL clubs over the years.

"This is the end of the Atlantic loop," said Murray Chaplin, president of the Baby Leafs booster club, which has pumped $1.4-million into charities across Newfoundland and Labrador since the team arrived.

"It's sad. We gave them our full support and the Toronto organization let us down. They say it's economics, but we don't see it that way. It's our team. It's like family. For 14 years we reared them. Now they leave the nest."

The Saint John Flames, who won the Calder Cup in 2001, folded last year after a decade in the slick, modern arena, Harbour Station, built primarily to attract the franchise.

The end of professional hockey broke that city's heart -- Saint John MP Elsie Wayne sobbed at a press conference declaring the club's demise. Here, a whole province's spirit has sagged since the NHL club announced in August that the team would move in order that prospects could be more closely monitored and travel time and expenses, totalling $800,000 a season, slashed.

"We were all disappointed; we respect the decision they made but it cuts a little at the heart," said Glenn Stanford, the club's general manager since day one. "It wasn't anything we did. We had no control over it so it's frustrating."

In 1990 to lure the team, Stanford secured 1,500 season-ticket holders, who each offered $50 non-refundable deposits. "Back then that was an impressive display and it reflected the enthusiasm at the time," he said. "The city embraced the team."

In the past four years the season-ticket base has slipped to 1,800 from about 3,300 because the team has struggled, missing the playoffs the past two seasons. It still draws an average of 5,100 fans a game to the glossy 6,100-seat arena that opened three years ago.

"We knew it was coming, that Toronto would eventually take the team back," said Maureen Meehan of St. John's, who was at a recent game with her 10-year-old daughter, Candace. She has attended at least 20 games a season since the start.

"This city has been great; the fans are loud and loyal. No matter how bad the team has been, we've still supported them. I think this upsets a lot of people. It's sad."

When the Nova Scotia Voyagers, the farm club of the Montreal Canadiens moved to Halifax in 1971, they put the league on the Maritime map by winning the Calder Cup in their first season. The Baby Leafs want to leave the AHL's legacy in Atlantic Canada with a championship.

"Winning [the Calder Cup]would be a Cinderella ending," said Harold Druken, the journeyman forward who is the club's only native Newfoundlander, born and raised in St. John's.

"But this is tough. A lot of people are upset we're leaving. This city has been through a lot. There have been a lot of strikes and a lot of troubles with the fishery over the years and pro hockey has given the place a lift."

There have been many ups and downs. The Leafs went to the Calder Cup final in 1992 under their first head coach Marc Crawford, losing in seven games. The next year, a strike by city workers forced the team to play most of their home games on the road.

AHL president Dave Andrews, a Bluenoser and former general manager of the Cape Breton Oilers from 1988-94, said the economics of the NHL hurts the viability of small-market teams everywhere, though Atlantic Canada has clearly lost the most.

"I would not have projected the loss of St. John's as an AHL city because it's been one of the strongest revenue producers and one of the best-run businesses in our league," Andrews said.

"But almost all the other decisions to leave Atlantic Canada were made by [NHL]teams that wanted relocation to stronger markets with greater revenue potential. With some of these teams playing in smaller buildings, the relatively small communities simply couldn't support it.

"I'm from Atlantic Canada and the legacy is not what I would have liked."

Since the AHL abandoned Halifax and Cape Breton and Charlottetown and Moncton, teams from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League moved in and are doing relatively well. Two groups in Saint John are trying to land a club and St. John's is also being considered. The league will decide at week's end whether to relocate some of its 16 teams or expand.

The AHL in Atlantic Canada

With their departure from The Rock in 2005, the St. John's Maple Leafs will be the last AHL team to leave the Maritimes.

FREDERICTON

Fredericton Express 1981-88

Fredericton Canadiens 1990-99

CHARLOTTETOWN

PEI Senators 1993-96

ST. JOHN'S

St. John's Maple Leafs 1991-05

SYDNEY

Cape Breton Oilers 1988-96

SAINT JOHN

Saint John Flames 1993-03

MONCTON

New Brunswick Hawks 1978-82

Moncton Alpines 1982-84

Moncton Golden Flames 1984-87

Moncton Hawks 1987-94

HALIFAX

Nova Scotia Voyagers 1971-84

Nova Scotia Oilers 1984-88

Halifax Citadels 1988-93