ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — It's not the Stanley Cup playoffs, but for hockey broadcaster Chris Ballard, the upcoming ECHL's Kelly Cup final could be even more exciting. The 32-year-old St. John's, N.L., native has seen his city's professional hockey teams come and go, watching the St. John's Maple Leafs as a kid and later working for the St. John's IceCaps early in his broadcasting career. On Saturday night, Ballard will be behind the microphone at the Mile One Centre in downtown St. John's as the Newfoundland Growlers continue their quest for the championship in their inaugural ECHL season. A capacity crowd is expected for the opening game of the finals against the Toledo Walleye, with fans hoping for a historic win for hockey in the East Coast city. "Hopefully four more wins and we'll be celebrating the first professional hockey championship in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador, which is absolutely crazy to say out loud," Ballard said Friday.
The season has brought hockey fever back to the Newfoundland and Labrador capital. Home games averaged crowds of more than 3,500 in the regular season and more than 4,000 in the playoffs. Growlers mascot Buddy the Puffin, a reliable presence at St. John's sporting events, tweeted Friday to alert fans of free noisemakers and other products bearing the Growlers' gold-and-black Newfoundland dog logo to be handed out at home games.
Some fans responded with an emphatic yes, while others sent their regrets but said they would be watching from outside the province. The enthusiasm from hockey-deprived fans has given the team an extra edge at home games, Ballard said, an effect he predicts will continue through the first two home games of the best-of-seven series before the Growlers head to Ohio for games three through five. The St. John's-based team was announced as the Toronto Maple Leafs' ECHL affiliate last June, with Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas calling the affiliation an important investment for the club in a city that has "historically meant a lot" to the Leafs. Ballard said broadcasting the games to his home province has been a dream come true, especially after the province's past hockey heartbreak. St. John's lost two AHL teams — the Maple Leafs, who played from 1991 to 2005 before relocating to Toronto and rebranding as the Marlies, and the IceCaps, who played from 2011 to 2017.
The Growlers' fiery first year has helped St. John's hockey fans erase those painful memories.
"Don't get me wrong, if we win, it's not like I'm retiring tomorrow by any stretch .... But I would fail to see anything beyond this that could top this moment," Ballard said.
"I could win a Stanley Cup after this somehow, and it wouldn't scratch the surface as to what this season could possibly mean for me." Ballard said standout memories from the last year include the season opener that saw the Growlers defeat the Florida Everblades at a packed Mile One stadium. He said it's been especially rewarding to watch players from Newfoundland and Labrador excel on the ice, pointing to the "magic" chemistry between Zach O’Brien and Marcus Power, who have played hockey together since they were kids growing up in the west end of St. John's.
Passion, skill and local star power from players like Adam Pardy, a former NHL-er originally from Bonavista, N.L., have been the "X factor" in an impressive first season, Ballard said. For the players, their families and their fans, it's been a season to remember in St. John's hockey, no matter which team takes home the trophy. "To find success at home in the inaugural season going all the way to the finals — win or lose, this is a year none of those guys are ever going to forget," Ballard said.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version called the league the East Coast Hockey League. It was renamed the ECHL in 2003.