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Anger and anxiety in Newfoundland after abrupt end to Growlers hockey team

The Newfoundland Embassy pub owner Niall Hickey poses in his establishment across from the Mary Brown Centre, home of Newfoundland Growlers hockey team, on Wednesday, April 3, 2024. The sudden end of the Growlers has left sports fans crushed and business owners anxious in a capital city spurned three times before by professional hockey teams. (Source: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly) The Newfoundland Embassy pub owner Niall Hickey poses in his establishment across from the Mary Brown Centre, home of Newfoundland Growlers hockey team, on Wednesday, April 3, 2024. The sudden end of the Growlers has left sports fans crushed and business owners anxious in a capital city spurned three times before by professional hockey teams. (Source: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly)
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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. -

The sudden end of the Newfoundland Growlers has left sports fans crushed and business owners anxious in a capital city spurned before by professional hockey teams.

Niall Hickey is co-owner of the Newfoundland Embassy, a lively pub in downtown St. John's, N.L., that was reliably packed before and after Growlers games, no matter how the team played.

He said Wednesday that he was still in disbelief about the announcement the day before that the ECHL was terminating the Growlers' membership in the league after nearly six seasons.

"I'm at a loss for words about it," Hickey said in an interview. "We heard this was coming up, but I didn't actually think the team would fold. It's a surprise, and it's definitely going to make for a tough winter."

The Growlers joined the ECHL in 2018-19 and won the Kelly Cup as league champions in their inaugural season. They won the series on home ice, sending fans streaming into the streets outside the Mary Brown's Centre -- then called the Mile One Centre -- and across the road to the Newfoundland Embassy, where a band played inside to a screaming crowd.

The Growlers were the first to win a professional hockey championship for St. John's, and the victory galvanized the city's support and pride for the team, Hickey said.

It also deepened hopes that the Growlers would be different than the other professional teams that had come and gone in St. John's, said John Riche, a real estate agent known for being a dedicated fan of the franchise.

Riche watched the St. John's Maple Leafs, an American Hockey League team, leave for Toronto in 2005, and then the AHL's Ice Caps left for Laval, Que., in 2017.

Unlike those teams, the Growlers were locally owned, by Deacon Sports and Entertainment. For some, that held promise that the team would stick around, since its fate would not be in the hands of an "outside source," Riche said. "But that turned out not to be true."

The ECHL said Tuesday that its board of governors voted to revoke the Growlers' membership "for failure to fulfil its obligations" under the league's bylaws. In a statement, Deacon Sports and Entertainment said it was unable to sell the St. John's-based team before Tuesday's league-mandated deadline.

The Growlers' final six games this season have been cancelled, and the team's players will become free agents.

Riche estimates he went to about 150 Growlers games, and he said he was "teed off" about their ending.

"I think I'm still reacting," he said in an interview Wednesday. "In the five stages of grief, I'm somewhere between anger and acceptance, and I'm rotating back and forth."

Hickey said other businesses in St. John's relied on Growlers traffic and will likely have a hard time without them. The community at large will also take a hit, since the Growlers players and management were always happy to participate in charity events, he added.

The Newfoundland Embassy opened in December 2019, during the team's first season; the pub has never operated without the Growlers playing, Hickey said. When the current season began last year, Hickey vowed to watch every home game they played, hustling across the road to the stadium after the pre-game rush, and running back before the final buzzer to meet the post-game revellers.

He hadn't missed a match when the ECHL announced an early end to the team's season on Tuesday, he said.

"They had our backs from Day One," Hickey said about his pub's relationship with the team. "I wish them all the best."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 3, 2024.

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