Dean MacDonald: ‘We’re All Part of the Story’

Dean MacDonald of Deacon Sports & Entertainment (DSE), the parent company of the
Newfoundland Growlers Hockey Club, talks provincial pride, local players, people who come to the games, and what a win feels like after ‘takin’ the lumber’

The Newfoundland Growlers become the 10th franchise of the Canadian Elite Basketball League and as the games are set to begin, it’s playoff time in the hockey world. There’s no rest for the wicked, and there’s even less for anyone dedicated to delivering great sporting entertainment in St. John’s, NL.

Dean MacDonald is the man behind Deacon Sports & Entertainment which owns the Newfoundland Growlers – affiliates of the Toronto Maple Leafs. They also own the Trois Rivières Quebec Lions (also in the playoffs), and the Coralville Iowa Heartlanders. 

MacDonald opened by saying “It’s been a tough but great season.”       Tough, because of the COVID restrictions when it came to fans in the stands and travel, but great because all three teams have made great strides in the ECHL world. “We’re really pleased with fan support and without them, things would be quite different,” he said. Sometimes, especially speaking about the success of the Growlers, who were Kelly Cup winners in their first franchise year, he has to remind himself “that it’s real.” 

“I don’t know how we ended up here. I honestly don’t. The irony is that we were approached to bring a team here, and we did it. It’s a credit to Glenn (Stanford – the Governor and Chief Operating Officer of the Newfoundland Growlers) and the team. A few things are important. We run a tight ship and we’re active in the community. That’s kudos to the lads on the team who have the passion. As for me? It’s just fun. I can’t describe it any other way. The playoff run we had in the first year, and to win it was like magic and that’s just one of the greatest moments of all time.”

Watching the joy on the faces of the players and the fans made his investment all that much more worthwhile, he added.

“It’s so much fun to see fans engaged. Our fans are really into each game. I think the local players on the team helps a lot as it gets the heart beating fast.”

Zach O’Brian. James Melindy. Nathan Noel. Marcus Power. Tyler Bowland. Players who grew up here bring family and community support to each and every game. 

Speaking of getting the heart beating faster, the three games the Growlers played at home against the Cincinnati Cyclones just before the start of the playoff games were some rough and tough hockey. MacDonald laughed. 

“I watched it. It was tough. But it’s nice when you win the gritty ones because that’s playoff hockey. They’re (Cyclones) a heavy hitting team and they’re going to take the lumber to us.” 

MacDonald and the Growlers organization have earned much praise in the league. While many are owed credit, as far as the head of the organization is concerned, the parent team gets the credit.

‘the Leafs system’

 “I think it starts with the Leafs … they are very determined to have a good team and all the players feel like they’re in the Leafs system. Like they have a chance. There’s a lot of time and effort put into each player with individual coaching so I think players feel that they’re really wanted and I think it’s fair to say there are teams in the league where that isn’t the case.” 

From medical care to good grub, the management team are committed to the players and their wellbeing both mentally and physically, he shared.

Looking back over 30 years of professional hockey in this province, McDonald says the credit goes to one man: Glenn Stanford. 

“At the end of the day, it’s all about Glenn. We don’t have a team without Glenn. It was the Leafs that approached Glenn about possibly playing here in St. John’s. It was Montreal who approached Glenn about Trois Rivières, and it was the city of Coralville that approached Glenn about the Heartlanders.” 

Glenn, he added, has a “blue chip kind of Rolodex when it comes to hockey,” he added. 

“I think it speaks volumes for him and his personality that people like him and like working with him … Glenn Stanford has been there from the get go.”

As for the playoffs? The team is ready, he said. “Coming into the playoffs now, we’re going to have to have a very good team and hopefully it’ll be interesting hockey.”

The fans, he said, are ready. 

“With everything that’s happened with COVID, I think the people are just longing for (sport at that level). That’s the feeling I have. We’re starting to get big crowds now and people are into it and I think we did a really good thing when we called the team the Newfoundland Growlers because we have a lot of support across the entire province.” 

The Growlers Academy

One piece that’s important is the opportunity to give back with Growlers Give and the Growlers Academy. 

“That’s really important for us … when I got involved with the team I realized that we had an opportunity to add good works for want of a better term. And you know, we really have a super active group of players like Todd Skirving. The Growlers Academy has been just huge and  the kids love it so much. I think that speaks volumes to how active we are in the community.”

The Growlers get a fair bit of play on the NHL stage too, like shout outs on Hockey Night in Canada. 

“It’s been said, ‘how are you guys getting so much time on Hockey Night in Canada?’ It’s because we’re giving it our all, from the staff to the fans, and this franchise is earning a very special place in people’s heart and so that makes me feel very proud.” 

Something else that has made him proud is his connection with Chris Abbott – Buddy the Puffin – who died suddenly early in the season. 

“Chris was the heart and soul of the franchise and has been for 30 years and loosing him is just beyond sad. I had so much respect for him in terms of what he did and how dedicated he was to his craft. There was no one better than Chris and hopefully (his memory) gives us something to play for now. He was just such a gentleman and a good person and a big part of warming up the crowd. He was dedicated to the cause.”

Any last words? “This is a celebration of hockey and a celebration of Newfoundland. It’s proven that hockey’s important to the community. I think it’s also a celebration of what Glenn has done for 30 years, and I’m really proud for him because he deserves so much credit. What a career he’s put together, and it’s inspiring, and he’s just a wonderful individual and I enjoy working with him so much. It’s been a real pleasure.” 

But at the end of the day, the fans are what makes hockey in NL such a pleasure to be involved with. “There’s so many who bring it every season, but really, anyone who has come to a game is part of the story of the last 30 years of hockey in this province.” 

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