The game began in the October rain, a fitting start for a franchise with an uncertain future. I, like over 6000 others, went to the franchise opening game not really knowing what to expect. The ECHL, an unknown league in a stadium where teams go to die, would this one be different?
The ECHL began life in 1988 with 5 teams, and it swelled to a high water mark of 31 teams in 2003. Currently there are 27. It is hard to ignore the fact that 60 ECHL franchises have either folded or have been relocated during the league’s 30 year history, so musical chairs and fly-by night franchises have been this league’s constant companion. Signs of future stability are very evident however, as more and more teams have been purchased by their NHL affiliates, putting them on solid financial footings.
Mile One Centre has not been around as long as the ECHL, but its history has certainly been one of flux. Opened in 2001, Mile One was built to replace the old Memorial Stadium and house the St. John’s Maple Leafs, who are now the Toronto Marlies. Shortly after Mile One opened, the St. John’s Maple Leafs made it known that they were leaving, and did so in 2004.
We’ve had nearly two decades of waiting, but the Newfoundland Growlers just might be a team worth cheering for.
This was, without mincing words, a sucker punch to the gut. We built a new facility for this franchise using public money, only to have our would be anchor tenant promptly bail. Mile One from that moment on hemorrhaged money, and chewed up one sports franchise after another.
The QMJHL Fog Devils arrived in 2005, left in 2008. The AHL’s Winnipeg Affiliate arrived in 2011 under the IceCaps banner, gone in 2015. The Montreal Canadians farm team arrived in 2015, also under the IceCaps banner and was gone in 2017.
The Newfoundland Growlers are the fifth hockey franchise to call Mile One home in 18 years. That’s more hockey teams than provincial elections in the same time period. And through it all, Mile One has felt like a dead building. Even on great nights, the atmosphere has felt tempered, muted, with the cheers drying up faster than they should.
If you were fortunate enough to have watched a game at the old Memorial Stadium, you’ll know what I mean. By every single metric, Mile One is the far superior rink, better sight-lines, concessions, facilities, seats, boards, ice, brighter, cleaner, everything; except that atmosphere.
The ‘Old Lady By The Lake’ felt grand, important, and alive with passion. When you stomped your feet, the building rumbled with energy as though you were perched on the rim of a great timpani drum wrapped around the ice. The teams were ours, the Senior hockey teams and the Maple Leafs felt like our team, until we were harshly reminded that they weren’t. These teams meant something in a way that the temporary teams to follow never did and never could.
The crowd lights were dim and the ice surface glowed; a theatre of tension, excitement, and expectation. Mile One is without question the better rink, but Memorial Stadium was the better stage.
Throughout the opening game, beyond the glitz of a light show, the NSO, and Alan Doyle who sang the Ode to Newfoundland beautifully, something which always makes my heart glow.
Beyond the glitches of the scoreboard that refused to work for a few minutes, a microphone which refused to work for a few more, and concourse level LED lights which weren’t installed in time. I couldn’t help thinking that this team didn’t feel temporary.
The cheers felt a little more hopeful and the win felt a little sweeter. Maybe it is the fact that this team is owned by a local ownership group, maybe the fact that the owners have expressed a sincere desire to buy the stadium, and Mile One could finally stop losing public money.
The top two thirds of Mile One is still dead under foot, but maybe the drum could be brought back. The Atmosphere is still thin, but maybe we could turn down the crowd lights just a little, the stage could be reset. We’ve had nearly two decades of waiting, but the Newfoundland Growlers just might be a team worth cheering for.