Aces owners open up on sale of local franchise

Krisi Marples/Courier Your St. Stephen Aces celebrating their win at the Garcelon Civic Center, marking the end of the regular season for the team. They headed into the playoffs, and a best of seven series against the Summerside Western Capitals. The team fell in the first four games of the playoffs, and ended not only their season, but the St. Stephen Aces franchise also came to an end.

St. Stephen – “We’ve been struggling since year one. The first year we were $100,000 in the hole,” said St. Stephen Aces former Governor, Mike Horne.

“The next year was $120,000, and anyway, this year was over $150,000 that we owed – that we have to pay off – before we can even start the next season. So we’re always starting from behind.”

Horne and son Chris Horne are in the Courier office, to talk about the sale of the Aces, St. Stephen’s former Junior A hockey team, now the Fredericton Junior Red Wings, as the team has been sold to Global Centre Ice, an investment group in Fredericton headed up by Roger Shannon.

“It was a business decision,” said Chris.

The sale came as somewhat of a surprise to the community, although rumours had been rife for weeks. St. Stephen Mayor Allan MacEachern who recently spoke of his disappointment surrounding the loss of the team, stated the town would have liked the right of first refusal on the sale. But Horne claims MacEachern had known for months the team was in trouble, and that leaving was on the table.

“In a conversation I had with the Mayor last August during hockey training camp on the steps of the civic center, I said Allan, if we don’t get some help, we’re not going to be here next year,” said Horne.

“Anyway, I don’t remember his response, but it wasn’t ‘well give me four days and I’ll find you an investor’.

“It wasn’t that.

“And town council knows because we’ve gone to them a couple of times looking for financial help,” added Horne.

And while MacEachern agrees he knew the team was struggling, he has gone on record recently stating he nor the town were ever informed the team was on the auction block.

“The group with gentlemen we met with across the street –and I’m not going to name their names – but they put together a group of ideas that might help try to sustain ourselves, and that didn’t work out,” said Horne, of a group that formed after a breakfast in 2017, where the Aces franchise reached out to the community for financial support.

“One gentlemen who was with the group went out into the town, canvassed all the businesses, and came back with something like $17,000. And that was just like a one year contribution,” said Horne.

“… on a $100,000 goal,” interjected Chris.

Horne looks at Chris and nods. “On a $100,000 goal. That’s what he came back with.

“So the writing was on the wall – we weren’t going to get any support from the business community. AE Horne dumps in at least $90,000 a year which is way more than they should be doing. Way more.”

“There’s other things that lead up to that lead up to that (the decision to sell) too – that decision – as far as the logistics of it. We’re part of the league obviously, and they govern the schedule. We have to let them know by March every year what our intentions are the next season,” said Chris.

“And by that time, nothing had been sold, but we had conversations with the other group in Fredericton, and of course we have to keep the league in the loop on that, they want to know what’s going on. Whether the team stays or goes at that point, the league still knew what was going on.

“It didn’t happen overnight – it was a long process actually,” Chris added.

But the real elephant in this room is why were all options for a local buyer not exhausted prior to even discussing the sale with a group who would be moving the team out of the region?

“I was going to mention the fundraising side of things. The decision to do what we had to do was based on that,” said Chris.

“We approached the Chamber of Commerce, we had multiple conversations with town council, with town officials, with business people in the community that we met with for fundraising efforts, and all that coming up empty – went into the decision of how is somebody local going to buy this team?

“If we can’t get $5000 from a business on a fundraising ask, how is anybody going to come up with the money to buy the franchise?

“We didn’t think it was an option even worth going down the road – because there wasn’t anything there.

“It was all part of the decision,” said Chris.

But why, as the deadline for selling loomed, did they not knock on those doors one final time? MacEachern has stated in a previous interview council recently voted with 100 per cent support to assist in the purchase of the team if the opportunity was presented. So why did Horne not make one last ditch attempt?

“We’d already done that. We’ve been doing that for five years. We knew it wasn’t there,” said Horne.

“We’ve been to council. The last we were there was when we had the presentation from Jason Carr. I will drop his name because he did yeoman work getting our ice time released.

“In that same meeting an agreement came up within council which kinda irked some of the public – and there were three naysayers on council who didn’t support this team,” Horne added. And truth told, the original vote on the renegotiation of the Aces ice rental fees did not receive the full support of council, but the motion still passed with a majority vote.

“We had an offer, and we figured well,” Horne pauses. “Listen. If we wait for something to happen here, the time frames gonna expire, and we’re going to lose that offer so we jumped on it, we negotiated with Global Centre Ice, and we signed a letter of intent with them in November, and in that letter of intent was a confidentiality clause.”

And it’s that confidentiality clause that was the binder in regards to seeking a potential and local buyer.

“We could not negotiate with anybody else unless we had prior approval (from Global Centre Ice),” said Horne.

“The agreement expires on April 30, and if a deal hadn’t been worked out by that time, we could have met with somebody else. But we approved the deal.

“We couldn’t solicit another deal during the negotiation period,” added Chris.

“We would have had to ask permission to do that from Global Centre Ice,” said Horne.

“…because they were part of that agreement,” said Chris.

“We would have had to advise them of anybody else who was interested in purchasing the team, which we didn’t receive any formal….”

Horne jumps in “No, we did not – nothing came about until all these rumours circulated. And we were close to signing the deal anyway.”

And again, it’s true. The only deal presented to Horne, Chris, and the Charlotte County Hockey Club Inc., formally and on paper, was the deal presented by Global Centre Ice.

“We didn’t receive anything. Early on in the process, there was a meeting with some business people and one or two of the people in our group after the rumours really started with the sale, and nothing ever came formally in a letter to say here – here’s another offer to look at,” said Chris.

“We didn’t want to see the team leave St. Stephen, that’s something we said from the get go,” he added.

“If it had have been able to work here, that’s great. But in the meetings we had with people before the sale, and all the finance people we met with and the fundraising efforts, we just didn’t see someone being able to step up and purchase and run that franchise the way it needed to be run.”

“I’m not happy about the decision to find new ownership for the Aces franchise, none of us are, but when any business, especially a not for profit business, is operating on a continuous and accumulating annual operating deficit there was no other option,” said Bob Sweeney, Aces former vice president in an emailed statement.

“It has been a great privilege for me for the past six years to have been involved with the Aces organization, the coaching staff, the players who hold a very special place for me and the community, our many volunteers and billets, Garth and Heather Williams in particular who opened their home and their lives on so many levels to the players and their families and then there is the game day crew who I have personally enjoyed immensely.

“I do feel a personal sense of failure and definitely regret. It was my responsibility to lead on finding the financial resources needed for the long-term sustainability of the Aces franchise and I deeply regret that we were not successful in meeting those needs.”

“I’m upset and very disappointed that the Aces are no more,” said Aces former President, John Hyslop in an emailed statement.

“A lot of time and effort, a lot of hard work by a lot of people went into creating and maintaining this program. The team meant so much too so many.

“I also understand the business numbers and that a change had to happen but I’m very disappointed we couldn’t make it work.

“The Aces from the beginning have been so much more than just a hockey team that showed up at the Garcelon Civic Center on most winter weekends to play the game and entertain. The players became a part of and brought a lot to our community.

“Being a part of the Aces has been a wonderful experience, largely because of all the great people who have been a part of this through the years, the players, coaches, training/equipment staff, billet families and so many other hard working volunteers filling so many roles.

“We have the best fans in the league and I thank each and every one of you for being there for us. I’d also like to say thank you to our sponsors, advertisers and all those who made donations to support us financially and to those who worked to produce and plan means to support the team,” Hyslop stated.

“I would have liked to have let the fans know, and players,” said Horne, when asked if he would have done anything differently.

“The fans are great. The fans in St. Stephen are great, and I feel really bad this had to transpire, because we had a pretty good following.

“Chris and I had words over it. But you know – you realize life will go on, but it’s no fun being in debt. It’s been a struggle,” added Horne.

“We live here to. It wasn’t anything intentional done, just to say let’s pull the rug out from under St. Stephen – that wasn’t the way at all,” said Chris. “Maybe it was perceived that way, but that wasn’t the intention at all.

“We thank everybody for supporting the team as long as it was here. We had great support and great sponsors, and we know people enjoyed it, but it was just a business decision that had to be made.”

Hyslop’s email ended it well. “Once an Ace, always an Ace.”