ST. JOHN’S, NL – The AHL in the 1990s looked far different from the one we see today. With the NHL trying to expand more and more into Canada, the AHL also made a strong push to put additional teams up north, as well (and most importantly, Atlantic Canada).
From 1986 to 1991, the Toronto Maple Leafs had its main AHL club in Newmarket, just outside of Toronto. But meanwhile, in Newfoundland and Labrador, the emergence of hockey was ever-growing. Though Newfoundland and Labrador had its own semi-professional hockey leagues, the province was ready for the pros, especially in St. John’s. They would get their wish, and Newmarket would leave Ontario, move to The Rock, and into the old lady by the lake, Memorial Stadium.
The AHL was ready for revitalization. The previous season had the AHL split into two divisions: South and North. With a strong presence in Atlantic Canada, fans would see the AHL divided into three divisions to start the 1991-92 season: Northern, Southern and Atlantic. The Atlantic third was comprised entirely of teams from Atlantic Canada: the St. John’s Maple Leafs, Cape Breton Oilers, Moncton Hawks, Fredericton Canadiens, and the Halifax Citadels.
The talent for the Baby Leafs was eye-opening, including this snapshot of their opening season:
|Andrew McKim||Yanic Perreault||Todd Gillingham||Kevin Maguire||Ted Crowley||Terry Chitaroni||Rob Mendel|
|Todd Hawkins||Greg Johnston||Dave Tomlinson||Mike Stevens||Guy Larose||Kent Manderville||Mike Jackson|
|Jeff Serowik||Brad Aitken||Mike Eastwood||Len Esau||Mark Ferner||Drake Berehowsky||Cory Banika|
|Joel Quenneville||Rob Pearson||Keith Osborne||Curtis Hunt||Greg Walters||Guy Lehoux||Mike Moes|
|Bruce Bell||Kevin McClelland||Robert Cimetta||Mike MacWilliam||Jeff Perry||Joe Sacco|
|Felix Potvin||Robert Horyna|
|Damian Rhodes||David Schill|
Marc Crawford was the first head coach of the St. John’s Maple Leafs, remaining in that position until 1994, where he would then serve as head coach for the Quebec Nordiques. Joel Quenneville served as assistant coach midway through the inaugural campaign.
In a Cinderella story, the team made it all the way to the Calder Cup Finals in their first year, only to lose to the Adirondack Red Wings in four games. For the Maple Leafs, this would be the first and last time the club would make it to the finals, never making it past the semifinals in following years. The club would make it to the playoffs every year after that, only missing the mark in 2000, 2003 and 2004.
At the start of the 1992-93 season, St. John’s named Buddy the Puffin as the mascot. Wearing number 92 to commemorate the first AHL season for the club, he would remain as the mascot for the club until their departure. Buddy was reintroduced again in 2011 when the St. John’s IceCaps were announced.
In 2001, the Memorial Stadium would see it’s the final game for the St. John’s Maple Leafs. The Baby Leafs would move to a new home, just five minutes down the road, where they would set up camp at the Mile One Centre, in the heart of downtown. The stadium left behind memories of the past, but brought new hope for the club to start the 2001-2002 season.
The stadium was later torn down on the inside and made into a supermarket. The grocery store still honors the days past, with a life-size scoreboard hanging from the ceiling and pictures of its former glory.
In 2002, the AHL would break in the new rink by hosting the AHL All-Star Classic at the new Mile One Center. What made it so special for the local hockey community was the participation of a local hero, John Slaney. Slaney notably scored the winning goal in the 1991 World Junior Championship to defeat the Russians in overtime. The All-Star Game was broadcast on Sportsnet coast-to-coast and seen on ESPN2, which gave a medium for Newfoundland to show it’s love for hockey.
Three years later in April 2005, the St. John’s Maple Leafs would play their final game. David Ling and Kyle Wellwood sat third and fourth in the league in points, respectively, just behind Mike Cammalleri and Jason Spezza. In their final regular-season game on home ice, late in the third, the Maple Leafs were up by two goals in the third against the Edmonton Roadrunners. The fans were jacked, and led perfectly to this moment:
In August 2019, the ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers revealed that they would wear a throwback St. John’s Maple Leafs jersey. So, on December 7, along with the age-old tradition of the NTV Teddy Toss, the Newfoundland Growlers donned the old Maple Leafs sweaters. For many, it brought back the nostalgia of the former club. The Growlers intend to wear a patch for the second half of the ECHL season to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Professional Hockey Players Association.
While I was writing this piece, I spoke to someone about how passionate Newfoundland and Labrador was about hockey in the AHL. I mentioned the St. John’s IceCaps selling out two all-star games in the province, two trips to the Calder Cup Finals, hard-fighting owners, and a driven market. He then asked me, “If they’re so passionate about the AHL, why do they keep losing franchises?” It got me thinking…when the AHL originally came to St. John’s in 1991, there was a devoted AHL presence in Atlantic Canada. It was a tough league too, full of rivals and great entertainment on the ice.
However, the expansion wouldn’t last long in Atlantic Canada. Halifax moved in 1993, Moncton folded in 1994, Cape Breton relocated in 1996, Prince Edward Island was reassigned to Binghamton in 1996, Fredericton was off to Quebec by 1999, and Saint John moved to Omaha in 2003. With costs rising and hope for a new Canadian NHL team falling, the AHL couldn’t afford to run an Atlantic Canada circuit. In their last season of existence, St. John’s North Division rivals contained teams from Alberta, New York, Ontario, Ohio, and Manitoba — not nearly as close as their old Maritime foes.
With no nearby teams to play against, expensive travel costs, and the Toronto Maple Leafs ready for an affiliate closer in proximity, the AHL didn’t have much choice but to approve moving the franchise to Ontario to become the Toronto Marlies.
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Marc Crawford, St. Johns Maple Leafs coach pic.twitter.com/vFpLlRBqv9
— Jen (@NHLhistorygirl) June 13, 2016
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