St. Stephen – “It was my granddaughters birthday party yesterday,” said St. Stephen Mayor Allan MacEachern. “She’s five. She’s been at every home game.”
MacEachern looks out his office window. It’s Sunday afternoon, and the sun in streaming through, flooding the room with light. “Since she was a baby she’s been leaning on that glass watching.”
He shakes his head. MacEachern is frustrated – the emotion is clear on his face. Why? The rumours swirling about the sale of the local Junior A Hockey team, the St. Stephen Aces.
And let’s be clear. At this juncture it is just that; rumour. Despite repeated attempts by the Courier to have Mike Horne, Aces Governor, Bob Sweeney, Vice President, or John Hyslop, President, confirm any of said rumours, they have declined to comment.
But a lack of comment doesn’t stop the rumour mill, and some of the details can be seemingly substantiated by default, like a press conference being held on April 15 at 5 p.m. at the Grant Harvey Arena in Fredericton coinciding with the day and time the aforementioned Aces governor stated Sunday he would be happy to discuss the potential sale.
Does that make it fact? It most certainly does not. But it does offer opportunity for pause, and quite inadvertently gives the rumours some traction. But again – to be clear – we’re working with rumour.
And as far as MacEachern is concerned, stating he’s had some conversations of his own with various parties, the sale isn’t idle gossip, or just a potential deal.
“If the team’s for sale, let us know,” said MacEachern of the gossip.
“We want to keep this thing going, and make this work,” he added.
What MacEachern wants to do is simple. The Aces are, after all, a business. And if that business needs to change ownership, he simply wants that ownership to be one which keeps the team in St. Stephen, not stop the sale in its entirety. But if current rumours prove true, the Aces are not only being sold, the sale would see the team move to Fredericton.
“In less than four days, I had a buyer,” said MacEachern of his actions after hearing the first rumours whisper through his office.
Sadly said option doesn’t seem of interest to the current team ownership…if a sale is indeed on the table. That’s still unsubstantiated by any party directly involved.
Not only does MacEachern have a potential buyer, with more than one option on the table – all options would mean the team would remain based at the Garcelon Civic Center, with some help from the Town itself.
The first option would see one person in the franchise paid out of their investment, the remaining investors would remain in place, and the board would then have some new members and new direction. The second option involves the independent investor being paid out, and the team purchased in full. Option two involves a small loan by the Town of St. Stephen, which already has a repayment schedule in place.
“I can say it received 100 per cent unanimous support in closed council session,” said MacEachern of the proposed solutions.
“What that tells me is people in the community are talking and have reached out to them (councillors),” he added.
And it wouldn’t be the first time the town helped the team out of a predicament.
“In 2017, we gave them a $20,000 grant and renegotiated their contract, which gave them retroactive (saving) on their ice time,” said MacEachern. The renegotiation simply brought the charges for ice time in line with what other Junior A teams paid at their local rinks.
“We put ice into the rink in Saint Andrews. That cost us quite a few thousand dollars. We took ownership of the Garcelon Civic Center early because the season started. Took a lot of risk. There’s a lot of cost tangled up in that risk,” he added.
“In 2017, we renegotiated the contract, and we grant them ($20,000) every year.”
And then there is the passive impact on St. Stephen. From local restaurants to grocery stores and gas stations, the Aces presence offers degrees of economic support throughout the hockey season that would be hard to replace. It could also have an impact on local employment.
“I’ll tell anyone right now,” said MacEachern.
“There’s employees that are connected to all this. There’s probably six canteen workers. Okay – let’s even say four. If we don’t have the Aces, they’re not going to be around. There’s custodial workers. Instead of one, we have two on during those nights.”
The team’s presence in the community also offers a spotlight on the area, and connections which may not otherwise have been made. “That’s a million dollar thing,” said MacEachern.
“There’s two connections I have with this,” he added.
“I love the league and the team. But it’s still a business in this town that’s (might be) leaving. And this business supports other business. “And I’ll fight for that just like I’ll fight for any other business in this town.
“I’m scared they’re going to rush off and sign (a deal),” said MacEachern.
“We would be the first town to lose a team with over 700 attendance at every game,” said MacEachern, clearly dismayed.
“I have had absolutely no role in the potential sale, relocation, or those (rumoured) negotiations,” said Aces Head Coach and GM, Emery Olauson. Olauson is so far removed in fact, the rumours are just that to him as well; rumours.
And any move would be a change to his original plan when he arrived in July of 2018.
“I chose St. Stephen for many reasons,” said Olauson on Sunday, “But the top two were town size and my wife and I loved the idea of raising our boys in a small, tight knit community and this was ideal from that aspect.
“Second was the opportunity to basically start from scratch. I didn’t feel like there would be any major issues with making changes and I thought I could build my brand of team here as they had not had any great seasons – there would be no reason not to make changes and try something different,” said Olauson, ever candid.
“If the team were to stay, of course I would try to fulfill both my contract and vision. My goal was to change the culture and expectations in year one, and by year three, become a contender. I believe we were on track with the trajectory of this team.
“I want to grow and explore my potential as a coach and GM in hockey.”
And that’s exactly what Olauson could do with the group he and Associate Coach Bill Rotheisler essentially created from scratch. Aside from +/- three returning players, the Aces had a roster full of players not just new to the team, but many new to the Junior A league.
Only three of 12 forwards on the 2018/19 team had ever played Junior A before. And yet the team made it to the playoffs – only the second time in franchise history – and with the most regular season wins in franchise history.
“This is going to be a team to be reckoned with for sure,” said Rotheisler in an interview at the end of March. “We’re really excited for the group of guys that’s going to be in this franchise.”
“With a potential 17 returning players, great prospects coming up and the strongest position in the league in the upcoming draft, I think if this team is kept together, it will be a championship caliber team in three years,” said Olauson on Sunday.
“I am on pins and needles just like everyone else to see what the future holds both for the team and my family,” he added.
“No matter what happens, I will always be proud of the turnaround season we just had.”