Winnipeg Jets chairman recommits to helping St. John’s IceCaps find a new NHL partner
The chairman of the Winnipeg Jets describe discussions that could lead to the move of the Jets’ American Hockey League franchise from St. John’s to Thunder Bay, Ont., as “very preliminary,” and says there is “a lot of uncertainty” about the Thunder Bay arena/convention centre project to be developed by a consortium that includes the Jets.
© — Photo by The Canadian Press
True North Sports and Entertainment and Winnipeg Jets chairman Mark Chipman says the geographic challenges of having its farm team based in St. John’s was the primary reason behind the organizations’ decision to relocate the AHL club.
Still, Mark Chipman sounds very much like someone whose organization is preparing to eventually move its AHL affiliate from Newfoundland — perhaps as soon as 2015 — no matter what happens with Thunder Bay.
Speaking Tuesday in Anaheim, Calif., where the Jets play the Ducks tonight, Chipman said geography is the driving force behind the planned relocation of their farm team, a move that could take place in a year-and-a-half after the expiration of Winnipeg’s affiliation deal with St. John’s IceCaps’ operator Danny Williams.
"We have an agreement with St. John’s for this year and all of next year. We have been, as you can imagine, in regular communication with our partners there. Specifically, I have had a lot of dialogue with Danny about this possibility, dating back to when we first entered into (the franchise lease agreement in 2011),” said Chipman.
The original agreement was for three seasons, with a one-year extension added on. However, Chipman says it was made it clear to Williams and the IceCaps from the beginning that if a suitable facility could be found in a location closer to Winnipeg, the team might eventually be moved out of Newfoundland.
That was confirmed by Williams and the team in a press release Tuesday.
“When the Jets originally placed their AHL affiliate in St. John’s in 2011, it was under the full knowledge and expectation that if Thunder Bay became a viable option (i.e. a suitable building was constructed there), the Jets could move the club to the Northern Ontario city after its current lease in St. John’s expired,” the team said in the release.
The IceCaps have sold out every home and playoff game since entering the AHL, but according to Chipman, that level of support is not enough to trump the problems involving the movement of personnel between the two teams.
“We were going to give the arrangement in St. John’s every chance of working and in many respects it has,” said Chipman.
“It’s a phenomenal market. It’s arguably the best market in the American Hockey League right now in terms of revenue production, but we made it clear that if it became challenging from a geographical perspective, that we might have to look elsewhere.
“And Danny’s been very understanding and very accommodating.”
The movement of players became even more of an issue for the Jets with their move to the NHL Western Conference. Getting call-ups from St. John’s in a timely fashion, particularly when the Jets were on the road, became more problematic.
“’It’s just really tricky, particularly now. You can just imagine trying to get a guy from St. John’s to Anaheim today. It would be tricky,” said Chipman.
“We experienced it last week trying to get (Carl) Klingberg out to Calgary and back.
“I think Kevin (Winnipeg general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff) has been very consistent in saying how important the development process is for us. Really, what this is, from a hockey operation standpoint, is to try and get our (AHL) team closer to home, so that the travel burden is much less and … our organization can get in to see our players develop more frequently.”
On Tuesday, the City of Thunder Bay announced a consortium that includes True North Sports and Entertainment, owner of the Jets; former NHL coach Gary Green, a director of Stadium Consultants International and BBB Architects; and Lakehead University has been chosen as the event partner for construction of a $106 million facility that would include a 5,700-seat arena.
“First and foremost, it’s really very preliminary,” Chipman said about the Thunder Bay project. “What we have accomplished is the right to negotiate … towards the development of a new entertainment facility. Our part in that would be the relocation of our American Hockey League team to Thunder Bay.
“Most optimistically, (a move) would be (at) the start of the 2016 season and maybe more likely the start of the 2017 season. It’s our initial step into the project. So my intuition is there’s a lot of work to do and a lot of uncertainty still.”
If Chipman is right in his projections, there could be a season or two between the expiration of the lease agreement with the IceCaps and a move to Thunder Bay.
Williams has suggested the Jets might move the franchise to temporary location in or near Winnipeg during the interim, but said he has also talked to Chipman about the possibility of the team staying in St. John’s during that bridge period since it might give the IceCaps more time to find a replacement affiliate.
Williams, who says he will consider buying an AHL franchise if one is available, is focusing on finding an NHL partner closer to Newfoundland, and more specifically, one from eastern Canada. Given the limited options in that regard, any extension of the Jets’ stay might make that quest more doable; the Hamilton Bulldogs agreement with Copps Coliseum, for example, expires in 2016.
The Jets, have as yet, made no pledge to stay in St. John’s beyond 2015, even if the Thunder Bay arena isn’t ready by then. However, Chipman said they, along with the AHL and league president Dave Andrews, will work with Williams and IceCaps chief operating officer Glenn Stanford to find a new franchise for St. John’s.
“Absolutely, they can” answered Chipman, when asked if he believed another AHL team could work in St. John’s, which has previous experience in such matters, having lost the Maple Leafs when they relocated to Toronto to become the Marlies in 2001.
“That was our pledge to our Danny when we first put the agreement together, that if we weren’t able to stay there, we would do everything to in our power to help find a replacement.
“We have every intention of making good on that promise. We’ll help in whatever way we can to get another team relocated there.
“It’s a phenomenal market, it really is. The distance has just proved to be challenging for us.”