Opening weekend, and all the anticipation and hoopla that came with it, is in the books and now the Newfoundland Growlers can focus on the remainder of this, their inaugural season in the ECHL.
The Growlers earned a weekend split with the Florida Everblades, winning by a 3-2 margin Friday night before a sellout crowd of 6,200-plus and falling by the same score Saturday, when the announced attendance was 5,325.
Friday, it was 20-year-old Latvian defenceman Kristians Rubins with the first goal in Growlers history, with his first pro goal in his first pro game, at 17:13 of the first period.
“Anytime you start something new,” said Growlers president Glenn Stanford, “the first weekend is always a little stressful.
“But we’d certainly deem it a success. The players maybe aren’t entirely happy with a split, but the feedback we received from fans was certainly positive. They were happy with the product judging from social media and the comments we received.
“I can tell you this: it was a lot of hard work by our staff in the days and weeks leading up to this.”
In a way — and not really a small way — the Everblades were responsible for bringing the ECHL to St. John’s.
St. John’s businessman Dean MacDonald spends some of the winter time in Fort Myers, Fla., on the Gulf of Mexico, and it was while there he began to take in Everblades’ games at the Hertz Arena in nearby Estero.
MacDonald liked the brand of hockey — a lot — and he carried this appreciation to discussions with Stanford about bringing the pro game back to Mile One, which was without a team after the 2017 departure of the American Hockey League franchise that had played in St. John’s for six years, the IceCaps.
Eventually, their collaboration led to a successful ECHL expansion application, an affiliation with the Toronto Maple Leafs and the birth of the Growlers.
Friday night, it was 1-0 for the Growlers through two periods of play before Newfoundland’s Matt Bradley made it 2-0 at the 6:58 mark of the third. It was also Bradley’s first goal as a professional, after playing for the WHL’s Regina Pats last season.
Kyle Platzer ruined Eamon McAdam’s bid for a shutout at the 10:27 mark, but Semyon Babintsev scored what would be the game-winner less than two minutes later.
The Everblades made things interesting, scoring with 1:14 left in regulation time while Florida enjoyed a six-on-four man advantage.
That’s as far as the Floridians would get as McAdam won for the second time for a team making its debut in the ECHL.
The Everblades, an affiliate of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, are one of the ECHL’s most successful franchises — they’ve only missed the playoffs once in their two decades of existence — and last year were Eastern Conference champions, losing to the Colorado Eagles in the Kelly Cup league final.
Florida showed some powerhouse traits Saturday, racking up 45 shots, and if not for the netminding of Michael Garteig, might have prevailed by a far larger margin.
Mitch Vandergust’s goal five and a half minutes into the third period broke a 2-2 tie and gave the Everblades the win, but not before the Growlers came close to scoring in the late stages with Garteig on the bench for an extra attacker.
Growlers rookie Georgio Estephan, who had been captain of the 2017-18 Western Hockey League champion Swift Current Broncos, opened the scoring Saturday, when his attempted pass went off an Everglades player and behind Florida goalie Jamie Phillips.
But while scoring first had led to an eventual win for the Growlers Friday, it wasn’t the case in the rematch. The Everblades took the lead on consecutive second-period goals by Kyle Platzer — his second in as many nights — and Steven Lorentz. Newfoundland evened things up later in the middle frame when Babintsev did as Platzer had, tallying for a second straight game, but that would be it for the home team scoring.
Next up for the Growlers are the Adirondack Thunder, another team that went deep into the ECHL playoffs last year, losing to the Everblades in the Eastern Conference final. The Thunder are at Mile One for games Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
Like Newfoundland, Adirondack — or Glens Falls, N.Y. where the Thunder play — is one of an increasing number of AHL cities now in the ECHL.
In total, there are nine former AHL cities in the ECHL — St. John’s, NL; Adirondack, N.Y.; Cincinnati, Ohio; Indianapolis, Ind.; Portland, Maine; Manchester, N.H.; Norfolk, Va.; Salt Lake City, Utah and Worcester, Mass.
Game times for games Monday and Tuesday are 7 p.m.
Growlers defenceman Adam Pardy, the Bonavista native and former NHL defenceman, did not play on the weekend as he recovers from injury. Also not playing were fellow defencemen Andrew Darrigo and forwards John Kestner, Maxim Mizyurin, Kristin Pospisil and Scott Trask … The Everblades have had over 30 players play for the team and then go on to appear in the NHL. They include Eric Boulton, Matt Hendricks, Shane Hnidy, Mark Stuart, goaltenders Scott Darling and Anton Khodubin and Newfoundlanders Jason Morgan and Doug O’Brien … John McCarron, who had a brief stint with the St. John’s IceCaps, was in the Florida lineup. McCarron is the older brother brother of former IceCap and Montreal Canadiens first-round draft pick Michael McCarron … Premier Dwight Ball took part in the opening faceoff Friday night …