448 days was all it took for the Newfoundland Growlers to cement themselves in the ECHL history books. On March 13, 2018, the League announced that its Board of Governors had approved an Expansion Membership application for St. John’s, Newfoundland to begin play in the 2018-19 Season. The St. John’s Membership would be owned by local businessman Dean MacDonald while Glenn Stanford, the long-time President of the city’s American Hockey League franchise, would oversee team operations. On June 4, 2019 that Membership won the Kelly Cup as champion of the ECHL in its inaugural season in the League, defeating the Toledo Walleye four games to two in the final series.
In the press release announcing the Board’s 2018 approval of the Membership, MacDonald shared that “Both Glenn and I are ecstatic that professional hockey is coming back to St. John's… This strong partnership will elevate professional sports in Newfoundland and provide many nights of action-packed entertainment for the community.”
It’s hard to think that even MacDonald could have predicted that these nights of community entertainment would extend into June, and that the Membership would reach the League’s Kelly Cup Finals in its inaugural season.
At a press conference on May 22, 2018, at The Rooms in Newfoundland and Labrador, MacDonald and Stanford, accompanied by a nine year old Newfoundland dog named Gabe, officially unveiled ‘Growlers’ as the team name, as well as the logo which features a front-on view of a Newfoundland dog’s head.
As the team release stated, “The primary logo is a Newfoundland dog – a large working dog who is known for their size, strength, intelligence and loyalty. The dog in the logo is fierce and stoic to represent the pride and resilience of our province, and our reputation of never backing down from a challenge.”
Another chapter in the Newfoundland Growlers’ inaugural season was penned when the team announced its affiliation with the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs on June 14, 2018.
“I think we were very fortunate to have a relationship with the Toronto Maple Leafs, a top tier organization. They supplied us with a lot of great players, and as the season went on, they just gelled together and became a real tough team to play against,” MacDonald said on the ice after his team’s Game 6 victory in the Kelly Cup Finals to take the series against the Toledo Walleye, four games to two.
NHL alumni and St. John’s native Ryane Clowe was the initial bench boss of the Growlers squad, who performed near the top of the ECHL for the entire season.
The first year squad finished first in the North Division, and third in the League, with a 43-21-8 record for 94 points in the 2018-19 regular season.
Newfoundland native Zach O’Brien, eventual Most Valuable Player of the 2019 Kelly Cup Playoffs, led the Growlers with 68 points (28G, 40A) during the regular season, good for seventh overall in the League. Rookies Scott Pooley and Brady Ferguson paced the team with 31 and 30 goals respectively. Netminder Michael Garteig earned a 2.72 GAA in 43 games in the regular season before he played every minute of the 2019 Kelly Cup Playoffs for the Growlers.
Clowe stepped down from his position as Head Coach in January due to health concerns. Then-Assistant Coach John Snowden was named the Growlers new Head Coach, and guided the team through the end of the regular season and to the Kelly Cup Championship. The Growlers are the first team to reach the final round of the ECHL postseason in its first season of existence since the Greensboro Monarchs in 1990, who went on to defeat Winston-Salem 4 games to 1 in the 1990 Riley Cup Finals.
Idaho (2004) and Allen (2015) both captured the Kelly Cup in their first seasons in the ECHL, though both teams had joined the ECHL from other professional hockey leagues.
“It’s tough to put words on it….It’s going to take a while for it to sink in,” Snowden shared after the Game 6 victory. “Obviously the first thing is we’re so happy for the group, so happy for the organization. We’ve put a good plan in place, we had the right people in place and we were able to achieve what we talked about doing at the start of the season.”
The feat the Growlers have accomplished is rare not just by ECHL terms, but in professional sports overall.
In the NHL, many fans and non-fans alike were captivated by the Vegas Golden Knights’ 2018 run to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season, where they lost to eventual champion Washington Capitals. Vegas’ trip to the Stanley Cup Final was the first time an NHL expansion team had reached the Final in its first season since the 1967-68 St. Louis Blues. However, the Blues’ appearance seems less significant than that of the Golden Knights, as it came along with the NHL’s expansion from Original Six to a 12 team league. The League divided the teams among two divisions, one for the Original Six and one for the six expansion teams. The formatting secured that an expansion team would reach the Stanley Cup Final.
In the American Hockey League, the Maine Mariners took home the Calder Cup, the League’s top prize, in their inaugural season in 1977-78. They repeated the Championship the following season. The Rochester Americans (1957) and Bridgeport Sound Tigers (2002) both reached the Calder Cup Finals the first season they took the ice as an organization, but neither was able to capture the League’s ultimate prize in the same year.
Off the ice and on the hardwood, the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks of the NBA are recognized as being the fastest expansion team to win a championship, but it took them three seasons and a number one draft pick (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) to do so after joining the league in 1968.
Over on the diamond, the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks became the fastest Modern League expansion team to claim a championship when they defeated the New York Yankees to do so in their fourth season.
In the NFL, no true expansion team (having never existed as an organization in any league previously) has ever captured the championship in its inaugural season.
In MLS, the 1998 Chicago Fire shocked the soccer world when the team captured the MLS Cup in its first season.
Though it surely wasn’t an easy road to raising the Kelly Cup, O’Brien noted that the way the organization was run at all levels was crucial to the victory. “Everything they do, from top to bottom – NHL, AHL, ECHL – everything is first class. They take care of us so well…I can’t say enough good things about the organization and it’s an honor to be a part of it.”
Players and staff alike were quick to highlight that the support of the people of St. John’s, the largest city and capital of Newfoundland and Labrador, was indescribable in the team’s inaugural season. The city had never captured a professional sports championship prior to the Growlers hoisting the Kelly Cup on Tuesday night.
“All the fans, they’ve waited for this for a long time,” O’Brien, a St. John’s native himself reflected. “To be able to have my friends and family here and watching all year, I feel really blessed right now and words can’t really describe this feeling.”
The crowd of 6,329 was loud and on its feet as the final seconds of Game 6 of the Kelly Cup Finals ticked off the clock and their home team had secured the victory.
“I think you can see with the crowd tonight what it means to this city. They’ve never had one (a professional sports championship),” Snowden reflected after his squad delivered the province its first championship. “It’s a proud province and it’s an amazing place to live, the people are so welcome and accommodating to everybody here.”
As team owner MacDonald laughed after the victory, “I keep telling everyone we haven’t won a professional trophy since John Cabot discovered Newfoundland in 1497 so it’s been a long time, it’s been quite a drought.”
The drought is officially over and Newfoundland finally has another trophy thanks to the 2018-19 Growlers.