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Jets exploring move AHL team to new Thunder Bay arena; St. John’s in limbo

Though it’s not final, the Winnipeg Jets are planning to move their AHL franchise to a new Thunder Bay arena, leaving St. John’s officials wondering if they can snare another AHL team.

To say that AHL teams are a hot commodity would be an understatement. With the announcement that a $106-million arena was in the works in Thunder Bay, the assumption always was that the Jets would be very interested in placing a team there. Makes sense: it cuts travel time down considerably, both for Jets/Thunder Bay travel and also to get a player from Thunder Bay to practically any city on the continent, especially with Winnipeg’s move to the Western Conference. (Let’s just Newfoundland presents some challenges on the travel front.) Now, we’re not talking anything imminent — 2016 is a possibility, 2017 is more likely — but the folks at True North say they’re working on the issue, per this statement by Mark Chipman:

“First and foremost, it’s really very preliminary. What we have accomplished is the right to negotiate with the City of Thunder Bay, a group that we’re a part of, towards the development of a new entertainment facility there. Our part in that would be the relocation of our American Hockey League team to Thunder Bay in the event that a) the project is successful and b) we get approval from the American Hockey League board of governors.

“We have an agreement with St. John’s for this year and all of next year. We’ve been, as you can imagine, in regular communication with our partners there… dating back to when we first entered into it. We were going to give the arrangement in St. John’s every chance of working and in many respects it has. It’s a phenomenal market. It’s arguably the best market in the American Hockey League 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 really that’s what’s driving this. It’s just really tricky, particularly now. If you can just imagine trying to get a guy from St. John’s to Anaheim today. It would be tricky. We experienced it last week trying to get (call up Carl) Klingberg out to Calgary and back. It’s tricky. I think (Jets GM) Kevin (Cheveldayoff) has been very consistent in saying how important the development process is for us. So really what this is is from a hockey operation standpoint to try and get our (farm) team closer to home. So that the travel burden is much less and frankly our organization can get in to see our players develop more frequently.”

So where does this leave St. John’s? The same as before: a remote market with good revenue production. Remote in a way where Western Conference NHL teams won’t want to see an affiliation, but with good revenue potential, attractive for any AHL owner. It’s not as though there’s not AHL teams and affiliations up for grabs in the next three years — if you look at the AHL attendance figures, there are clearly some teams that are potential targets — but the Newfoundland location is particularly challenging. From The Telegram’s Brendan McCarthy:

If we are to accept geography — the distance between the IceCaps and the parent team — as the reason the Jets will leave here, probably in 2015, then it’s reasonable to assume the same problem would exist for most every other Western Conference NHL club. If so, affiliations with those teams are unlikely, meaning the IceCaps’ options are immediately and drastically reduced.

As well, bringing a team here could very well involve two separate deals.

The Jets own their AHL franchise, so successful negotiations with them in 2011 brought both a team and an NHL affiliation. However only about a third of AHL franchises are directly owned by NHL teams. The rest are privately owned and have negotiated affiliation agreements with NHL teams.

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