Friday, October 12 was a historic day in St. John’s, Newfoundland. On that night, the Newfoundland Growlers took the ice at the Mile One Centre to play their first game in the ECHL, versus the reigning Eastern Conference champion Florida Everblades. The organization’s inaugural game was something out of a movie script – the return of professional hockey in a province that craved it, a sold out crowd of 6,287, and a thrilling 3-2 victory over the Everblades.
To officially commence the organization’s tenure in the League, various dignitaries were in attendance on that Friday night and took the ice for a ceremonial puck drop ahead of the game. This group included team owner Dean MacDonald, ECHL Commissioner Ryan Crelin, Toronto Maple Leafs Assistant General Manager Laurence Gilman, Newfoundland Premier Dwight Ball, St. John’s Mayor Danny Breen, and Darren Colbourne, who was born and raised in Newfoundland, and is a member of both the ECHL and Newfoundland & Labrador Hockey Hall of Fames.
Colbourne, who grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, and still lives there with his family, wife Lisa and sons Matt (21) and Jake (17), accomplished a decorated career in the ECHL, playing 421 games over seven seasons in the League. He ranks fifth in League history with 323 goals, while his 0.77 goals-per-game average ranks third all-time. He was named the ECHL Rookie of the Year and earned a spot on the All-ECHL First Team in 1991-92 after posting 119 points (69g-50a) in 64 games with Dayton and earned a spot on the All-ECHL Second Team in 1993-94. These accomplishments were capped off by his 2015 induction into the ECHL Hall of Fame.
Despite his professional hockey career granting him the opportunity to live in so many places outside Canada, Colbourne returned to Newfoundland in 1999 after lacing up the skates for the last time professionally and has remained there ever since. The former professional hockey player now works as an Operations Manager with PharmaSave Atlantic, a chain of drugstores in Canada. He oversees the province of Newfoundland & Labrador, which allows him the chance to occasionally catch a Growlers game while traveling for work. In addition to his role with PharmaSave, he coaches the Corner Brook Royals, a member of the Canadian West Coast Senior Hockey League. The latter role allows him the opportunity to coach his son Matt.
Having been exposed to so many other places to live throughout his playing days, Colbourne singles out one main reason for returning to the province, “Mostly family. My mom and dad, who are still living, my Dad just turned 80 and my mom is 82, and we’re so lucky in that regard…we came home strictly because of family. We had just Matt at that time, who was two years old, and we wanted him to grow up around his grandparents.”
He affectionately describes the people of Newfoundland as ones with hockey “in their blood.” As he recalled, “When I grew up in Corner Brook, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon you would go to the rink to watch senior hockey, and you didn’t miss it. And the place would be sold out every game.”
Colbourne is just as much living proof of this description as anyone else. While his successes in the ECHL have already been outlined, it’s worth noting that in January 2018, not long from his 50th birthday, he suited up for the Royals, the Senior Hockey League team that he coaches. When the team found itself short on players due to injury or work, Colbourne came out of retirement to fill in the gap. Though some time had passed from his days in the ECHL, it was clear his offensive prowess was still as strong as ever – though his recovery may not have been.
“I did OK, I scored a bunch of goals, but I got hit twice and had to miss two games! Getting hit at age 50 compared with even getting at 40 are totally different. The opposing players knew I could score so they weren’t going to take it easy on me – and they didn’t!”
An injury had first Colbourne’s first born, Matt, on the sideline, leading to a case of role reversal with his old man.
“He got injured in November – he’s part of the reason why I came back to play. He was our top scorer and he screwed up his knee. He scraped a bunch of cartilage off his knee and it took him almost five months to recover. The ironic thing was that I ended up playing and he ended up coaching…There’s a big history to senior hockey in Newfoundland….It’s affordable, you know you’re going to get your scrap here and there, you’re going to have some half decent hockey and it’s all locals, no imports. They’re all from this town, so it’s very local and that’s where the pride comes from.”
Colbourne, quite clearly, is no different than other Newfoundlanders in the sense that hockey is in his blood. But he’s quick to recognize that his success in the sport would not have been possible without the support of those in the province.
“It sounds corny, but I never would have gotten out of here without the people who supported me. You need that extra push, that extra bit of fostering coming out of a small town.”
So for this Newfoundlander who, like others, had hockey in his blood, it came full circle when he was inducted into both the ECHL Hall of Fame and the Newfoundland and Labrador Hockey Hall of Fame in 2015.
“It was just a complete honor, you know for Newfoundland hockey and to be recognized with the group in that Hall of Fame, and the same goes for the ECHL. I couldn’t believe it when I got the call that I was going to be honored for that.”
So this fall, when the Growlers took the ice for their first season in the League that he was such a crucial building block of, Colbourne had a front row seat to the action and a chance to reflect on what the League meant to him.
“I was very pleased to hear that the ECHL was coming (to Newfoundland). A lot of people have been spoiled in St. John’s because they had QMJHL, they had the AHL. I just want people to get a good opportunity to see it, and see it for what it is. I know that lineups change a lot in the ECHL, but that’s what ECHL hockey is. If you have an opportunity to move, you get going and you move up to the next level. People have to realize that they’re going to see a lot of different players. They have to get used to the style of the League, there’s going to be a few more mistakes, because it is a little lower level, but nothing wrong with more mistakes, because that means more action.”
In their inaugural season in the ECHL, the Growlers have seen strong success, including an eight game win streak in November. The team currently sits atop the League’s standings with 29 points and a 14-6-1 record. As the players and staff get adjusted to the ins and outs of AA hockey, the fans have been committed to supporting the team in its infancy as well, with an average of 3,880 per night attending games at the Mile One Centre. Colbourne points out that the ECHL is more than just a developmental league for players.
“The ECHL isn’t just a grounds for hockey players being able to move up. I find it just as good for coaches learning their trade and others who realize they may not make a living as a player, but have other opportunities.”
With the strong start on the ice and support from the community, signs are favorable of what’s to come for Growlers hockey. One thing is for sure, that the Growlers have an ECHL Hall of Famer already in their corner in Colbourne.
“It’s amazing to me that the ECHL has spread its wings that far to include Newfoundland & Labrador. I never thought I’d see the day that this League would be there.”