Thursday, October 6, 2011

P-Bruins Commentary: Visiting IceCaps Begin Battle With Sports-Business Gods

For what one night and the immediate future are worth, there is a rather soul-warming factoid behind the Providence Bruins and their opening night matchup with the St. John’s IceCaps this Friday.

When they were born in 1992, ending a 16-year interval without pro hockey in Rhode Island, the Baby Bs played their first two regular-season games on the road against the St. John’s Maple Leafs. The anniversary of that two-night, icebreaking series falls this Thursday and Friday.

Today, as they round out their second decade of existence and build upon their elder statesman’s status as the AHL’s third-longest-tenured franchise, the P-Bruins get to return the favor. The IceCaps will officially restore professional hockey to Newfoundland six years after the Maple Leafs bolted when they lock twigs with the P-Bruins at the Dunkin Donuts Center on Friday.

But while the P-Bruins will have the pleasure of inaugurating another city’s second crack at Triple-A hockey, what this amounts to down the road is in question. The times and the circumstances are so different that the IceCaps might not live to see their own 20th anniversary, maybe not even their 10th.

At the time of their advent, the primal concern over the P-Bruins’ long-term viability was whether a city and a venue of their size were fit for the American Hockey League. Although it was one step shy of The Show, the circuit still had more a Federal League vibe to it.

Since then, the doubts have turned the same 180 degrees as the roles between Providence and St. John’s. Right before the P-Bruins’ eyes, minor professional hockey has gone from extensive to extinct in eastern Canada.

Between their inaugural season and their 10th anniversary, the Spoked-Ps engaged teams from Cape Breton, Cornwall, Fredericton, Halifax, Moncton, Prince Edward Island, Quebec City, Saint John and St. John’s.

By 2003, the St. John’s Maple Leafs were the last of those nine teams standing. By 2005, they had transferred closer to their parents’ home base and transformed into the Toronto Marlies.

The logical consensus thereafter was that anyplace east of Ontario and north of the border was now exclusively for the Quebec Major Junior League.

After all, as the Baby Leafs turned brown and descended to their death, the Baby Bs and other AHL tenants were still competing against newer staples from Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Hartford, Houston, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, San Antonio and Winnipeg. All of those markets have either had an NHL team and/or major-league teams in other sports.

The recent demises of the Philadelphia Phantoms and Manitoba Moose were owed to anything but lack of fan support. The Phantoms were simply evicted when their old, tattered Spectrum was condemned while the Moose had to vacate the MTS Centre with the return of the Winnipeg Jets. To the bitter end, each of those teams averaged bigger crowds than the IceCaps’ Mile One Centre can accommodate.

Ironically, the new incarnation of the Moose is none other than these IceCaps, who will serve as the Jets farm team.

But for how long? Considering the AHL’s growth over the past two decades—both in terms of membership and conventional market sizes—it is difficult to envision a widespread return to Atlantic Canada.

Not unlike the one-and-done Edmonton Roadrunners and the still-burning Abbotsford Heat on the country’s west coast, the IceCaps’ topmost concern is the lack of a geographic rival. Like it was in the final years of the Maple Leafs, Portland is the closest AHL city St. John’s with an 882-mile difference.

In that vein, one would have better odds trying to exhume the Capital District Islanders or the Kentucky Thoroughblades.

Conversely, not only did the P-Bruins arrive with great timing as the AHL was on the verge of swallowing up the remnants of the International League and loading up on five-figure-seat arenas, many of them shared with NBA or Division I basketball teams. They also had the Springfield Indians and New Haven Senators already in the vicinity.

Before long, Portland, Worcester and Hartford all joined in to permeate the league’s presence in New England.

With the AHL having maxed out its membership of 30 teams, the only chance of a return to the Quebec/Maritime/Newfoundland neighborhood rests on multiple relocations. Not inconceivable, but not likely.

Even less likely would be multiple franchises opting to migrate to the northeastern part of the continent all at once. Even less likely still would be enough QMJHL teams willingly relinquishing their AHL-caliber abodes.

Incidentally, if the isolation that comes with being the only team west of the Central Time Zone brings them to a snapping point, the Heat might find a way to provide the IceCaps with more competitive company. That scenario could at least be a common solution for two franchises, but would doubtlessly undermine AHL president Dave Andrews’ ambition to cement his league as a bona fide continental circuit.

If there is to be any comprehensive, long-term shapeshifting, it would more likely come in the form of uprooting a few of the AHL’s numerous New England and/or Mid-Atlantic tenants and transplanting them to American cities west of the Rocky Mountains. The states Illinois and Texas may not keep three AHL teams apiece forever, either.

With all this having been said, the citizens of St. John’s have the IceCaps for now and for an indefinite period that is longer than never.

Good for them. Providence puckheads can relate.