Toronto Maple Leafs ECHL Affiliate Opt Out of Season

Some Toronto Maple Leafs Prospects Now Without A Home For 2020-21 Season.

In a press release on Wednesday, the Newfoundland Growlers, the Toronto Maple Leafs ECHL affiliate, announced that they would be opting-out of play for the 2020-21 season when it gets underway next month. The Growlers are one of eight teams who have chosen not to return to the ice due to the Covid Pandemic.

The news comes without much of a shock for Growlers Nation, as the fanbase in St. John’s and beyond have seen several key team members, such as Zach O’Brien, Giorgio Estephan and Marcus Power, walk away from the club as free agents.

Logistically, it makes sense that the team would not return, given the current global climate. The Growlers are one of two Canadian ECHL teams, and with the Canadian border remaining closed for the foreseeable future, plus the strict restrictions set up by the Atlantic Canada Bubble, the options for the Growlers were limited to temporarily relocating to another city, or not playing at all.

Toronto Maple Leafs and the Newfoundland Growlers

The ECHL is often seen as a dead-end for an NHL hopefuls career prospects. However, in the short couple of years since the Leafs partnered with Growlers owner Dean Macdonald to bring professional hockey back to Newfoundland, general manager Kyle Dubas has stated and re-stated his faith in the league’s potential as a valuable asset for prospect development. This philosophy has worked out quite well so far, as seven current members of the Toronto Marlies began their stints in the Leafs organization as Growlers.

While the news of the Growlers opting-out is disappointing, a bigger storm is brewing for hockey fans here in St. John’s, as the press release also revealed that the Maple Leafs current affiliation with the Growlers is set to expire in May 2021. While the affiliation can be easily renewed, it may be conditional on the outcome of a potential sale of the Growlers home arena, the Mile One Center.

For several months now, Dean Macdonald and the Growlers management group have been attempting to convince the St. John’s Sports and Entertainment committee (which currently manages the Mile One Center) to sell them the arena, or at least enter into a partnership to manage the arena as opposed to their current landlord/tenant agreement.

The affiliation with the Toronto Maple Leafs was secured after signing a Memorandum of Understanding with St. John’s Sports and Entertainment that stated the Growlers management would eventually assume control over the day-to-day operations of Mile One Centre. The future of that affiliation is assumed to be dependent on this transfer of power finally reaching completion, however, the city has thus far responded with the flimsy excuse that they have to retain control of the aging building that annually operates at a net profit loss, simply in order to bid on events such as the Tim Hortons Brier curling championship.

Despite a commitment from Macdonald to both work with the city council to facilitate their needs, revitalize the building and give the citizens of St. John’s a much-needed tax break by privatizing the arena, the city has refused to budge on their stance. Maybe some recent unnecessary layoffs at St. John’s Sports and Entertainment, combined with the news that the Growlers will not inhabit the building until next fall, if they ever return, will be the eye-opening experience that the city council needs in order to convince them to sell. Until then, hockey fans in St. John’s will live under threat of losing the city’s fourth major hockey team in 15 years.

For their part, the Toronto Maple Leafs have released a statement in support of Macdonald’s aspirations to purchase Mile One. Laurence Gilman, Assistant General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, said: “It is important to the Maple Leafs that our local partners are successful, as their success ensures the viability of our development program, we support [the aspiration] to own and manage Mile One Centre as it will safeguard our commitment and long-term relationship with St. John’s.”

For the time being, prospects such as Justin Brazeau, Jeremy McKenna and Colt Conrad will have to battle for ice time with the Marlies or be loaned to other clubs as the Leafs organization and Growlers navigate the uncertain waters ahead.