By: Mark Dwyer
A look back at 30 years of professional hockey in St. John’s and celebrating the local stars who gave fans plenty of reason to cheer
It’s been three decades since professional hockey arrived in the province’s capital, a sports journey that has embraced several franchises, two leagues and an alumni of NHL legends.
The Baby Leafs
That first year was pure magic for the province as the American Hockey League’s St. John’s Maple Leafs, the farm team of the storied Toronto Maple Leafs, captured the hearts of sports fans – narrowly losing the 1991-92 league championship.
The Baby Leafs – featuring 21-year-old Corner Brook forward Todd Gillingham and led by rookie coach Marc Crawford – gave fans at Memorial Stadium its first taste of the pro game.
But the city’s first dalliance with the pro game actually came way back in 1983 when Ian McKenzie, owner of Regatta Ford, organized a four-team AHL exhibition tournament with an eye to bringing a pro team to St. John’s. AHL president Jack Butterfield balked at the idea of having his teams, which travelled exclusively by bus, fly to the island.
But by the early 1990s pro hockey talk heated up. In 1990 the NHL’s Minnesota North Stars and general manager Bobby Clarke signed a deal with Mayor Shannie Duff to place Minnesota’s minor league affiliate in St. John’s.
There was only one problem, the North Stars minor league team at the time was based in Kalamazoo, Michigan of the International Hockey League and the AHL refused to allow Minnesota to simply transfer the club to the league without buying an expansion franchise first and the deal fell through.
Standing room only
Undaunted, the city turned its attention to the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were unhappy with their AHL franchise in Newmarket, Ontario. Shifting the franchise to St. John’s would not pose the same problem the North Stars encountered. And despite Butterfield’s concern about travel, Cliff Fletcher and his Toronto Maple Leafs would be finally bring pro hockey to Newfoundland.
Rabid St. John’s hockey fans quickly snapped up every season ticket available in the 3,500 seat Memorial Stadium and the standing room only crowd were treated to an exciting brand of hockey that culminated in a Calder Cup run.
Gillingham was the first of many Newfoundlanders to play the pro game in St. John’s. Players like Terry Ryan and Harold Druken followed with the Baby Leafs, but the most memorable was South Shore senior hockey league legend Andy Sullivan, one of the province’s all-time great amateur players, who turned pro with the Maple Leafs as a 32-year-old.
First pro goal
Venerable Baby Leafs radio broadcaster George MacLaren said when Sullivan scored his first pro goal it was like the roof just about blew off the old Stadium — cheering never heard since the night George Spracklin scored for the St. John’s Caps senior hockey team versus the visiting Soviet national team, featuring the likes of Vladislav Tretiak.
By 2005, the pro hockey landscape had changed and many teams wanted to have their AHL affiliate close to the parent club for salary cap reasons and the Maple Leafs were one of those clubs — moving the Baby Leafs to the Ricoh Colleseum in Toronto.
While the St. John’s Fog Devils of the Quebec Major Junior league filled the hockey void for a couple of years, it would be several years until the American Hockey League would return to St. John’s.
Miracle on ice
In nothing short of a miracle, former Premier Danny Williams convinced the newly-formed Winnipeg Jets to place their AHL franchise in St. John’s. The IceCaps were a smash hit at Mile One Stadium — setting an AHL record for most consecutive sell-outs and advancing to the league semifinals in year one, led by Corner Brook native Jason King.
The IceCaps would advance to the AHL finals in 2014 and play one more year as the Jets’ top farm club before, like Toronto, the club was moved to the same city as the parent club.
As a stop gap, the Montreal Canadiens, building a new AHL arena in nearby Laval, needed a place to temporarily house its minor league team and the IceCaps lived on for two more years.
Go Growlers, Go!
There was another absence of pro hockey in the capital city until 2018 when the Toronto Maple Leafs came into the picture once again, this time with an ECHL affiliation for St. John’s.
The ECHL is considered a tier below the AHL, but the team would be considered the class of the league, bringing St. John’s its first professional sports title. And like the city’s previous hockey clubs the Newfoundland Growlers were led by a handful of Newfoundlanders — NHL veteran Adam Pardy, snipers Zach O’Brien and Marcus Power and tough defenceman James Melindy. The club was also coached initially by long-time NHLer Ryane Clowe, of Fermeuse, who had to leave the bench due to lingering concussion issues.
The Growlers did not get to defend their title in 2020 as the playoffs were cancelled due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Growlers then voluntarily suspended operations for the 2020-21 season as the pandemic still had ongoing travel restrictions.
Of course, no story about professional hockey would be complete without mentioning Glenn Stanford, the executive who has overseen every interaction of professional hockey in the city and has a sterling reputation in pro hockey circles.
Buddy the Puffin
Another fixture on all pro hockey teams in St. John’s was Buddy the Puffin. He was previously the mascot of the St. John’s Maple Leafs and later the St. John’s IceCaps and Growlers. Buddy’s number is 92, which represents 1992, the year that he was introduced as the mascot of the St. John’s Maple Leafs. For most of Buddy’s tenure, the man in the suit was Chris Abbott, who tragically passed away in early February.
Pro hockey dream
Among coaches who steered St. John’s pro hockey teams two men — Marc Crawford and Joel Quenneville of the St. John’s Maple Leafs – went on to coach NHL teams to Stanley Cup championships. Arguably the greatest player to ever play the pro game in St. John’s is former IceCaps goalie Connor Hellebuyck who won the 2020 Vezina Trophy, the only St. John’s pro hockey alumni to win a major NHL individual player award.
The pro hockey dream continues in the province’s capital with the Newfoundland Growlers still chasing another ECHL title. This team –and the many teams over the past three decades – continue to give fans a reason to cheer.