Saturday, 14 March 2015

It's Just Business, Right?

The announcement on Thursday that saw the OHL's Belleville Bulls were sold to Hamilton in a deal that follows a successive set of dominoes falling in the AHL. Bulls majority owner Gord Simmonds sold the team to Hamilton businessman Michael Andlauer, former owner of the AHL's Hamilton Bulldogs. The Hamilton Bulldogs were sold by Andlauer to the Montreal Canadiens who will move the team to St. John's, Newfoundland where it will be run by Danny Williams and renamed as the IceCaps. The current version of the St. John's IceCaps will be moved from St. John's by their owner, the Winnipeg Jets, to Winnipeg, Manitoba where they will be rebranded as the Manitoba Moose once more. Got all that?

Today, friend and hockey lover Peter Santellan, who puts his hockey thoughts down on the excellent blog Pucks and Rocks, writes a little piece for HBIC about the moves seen in Canadian junior hockey in the last few years. Peter makes a good point in his writing, and I'll expand on it below. Here is Peter with his thoughts on the moves.
With some news in the OHL, I figure to have a small say here, so here goes.

In the world of major junior hockey, teams move or fold with some level of regularity. In the WHL, you'd be hard pressed to find a team that hasn't at one point in their existence, done either or even rebranded themselves (e.g. Portland spawned from the ashes of the original Edmonton Oil Kings franchise).

In the OHL (the reason for this piece), three franchises have or will have relocated within the last two years. First, the Brampton Battalion picked up stakes after the 2012-13 season and moved to North Bay. This season alone, two teams have announced that that will be picking up stakes and move to different locations for next year. The Plymouth Whalers will be moving to Flint, MI after ownership changed hands, with Peter Karmanos selling to IMS Hockey Corporation in a move announced earlier this year. Today, the Belleville Bulls announced they will be moving to Hamilton, ON after the season. The move comes after the fight between owners of the Bulls and Belleville city leaders allowed for the lease of Yardmen Arena to expire at the end of this season. The chain reaction from the Belleville move is that the Hamilton Bulldogs name will be foisted upon the incoming team while the current Bulldogs will be heading to Saint John's after the parent Montreal Canadiens bought the team from Michael Andlauer.

The move effectively ends the 34 years that the Bulls had in the city while in the OHL, with two years of the franchise playing before that in a lower league. Players such as P.K. Subban, Bryan Marchment, Darren McCarty, and Dan Cleary suited up in a Bulls uniform at one point prior to their respective NHL careers, and while circumstances have led to a rather sad end for Belleville, it seems like little in major junior is forever.
Thanks for writing that, Peter! It has triggered a few thoughts for me, and I'll expand on those below. Excellent recap of what has been going on in the OHL over the last couple of years!

It has to worry teams like Owen Sound, Sarnia, and Saginaw when they see teams abandoning cities like Brampton, Belleville, and Plymouth. Granted, there are other circumstances that factor into those teams leaving, but attendance always plays a factor and Owen Sound, Sarnia, and Saginaw hover near the bottom of the OHL attendance figures annually. Small markets are seemingly harder and harder to keep afloat in the OHL as more teams move to larger centers.

Is junior hockey no longer a community thing?

As per the Bulls,
For well over 20 years, ownership, past and present, have awaited a determination from City leaders on this critical question. In the past eleven years, our ownership team chose to work with the City rather than force a decision with threats of departure. The expiration of the arena lease at the end of this season teamed with no commitment to a broadly supported improvement plan puts our ownership and the OHL in an untenable position.

With increasing costs, and a sub-par facility we see no viability in this context. This is not an option for us. While some suggest that local ownership could unlock the key to success, it is completely unlikely that the OHL would entertain the transfer or sale of the Club if the team was to stay in the same facility.
And there's the crux of the situation. Just like professional teams, the lack of a new facility to support more fans, concessions, luxury suites, and other money-making venues is the main factor behind Belleville's move to Hamilton. Junior teams hardly turn the profits that NHL teams do, but they still need to be profitable as a business. It sounds like Belleville was watching their bottom line closely as the lease with Yardman Arena expired, and it was the best time to cut their losses (if there were any) and look at a newer facility.

As a civic improvement, a new arena could certainly help Belleville, but we need to be honest in stating that an arena is a luxury for most cities and towns. While it can attract all sorts of economic benefits - sports teams and concerts, as examples - it's a huge undertaking for a community with a limited tax base, especially when other civic improvements are needed. Thunder Bay, Ontario is finding this out right now as they battle to secure funds from all sorts of different places (thanks for the link, Will S.!).

In the case of Brampton, they left the Toronto suburb after falling below 2000 fans per game, but the move to North Bay, Ontario saw North Bay do a $12 million renovation on their aging Memorial Arena. The Battalion could have moved to a dozen communities who wanted the junior team, but the renovation of Memorial Arena and the past success of North Bay as an OHL community seems to have sold the Battalion on North Bay. Would they have moved there without the renovation?

The Plymouth move to Flint, Michigan seems a little more curious when you consider Flint's recent economic problems. The city is starting to rebound, but Plymouth is moving 35 minutes north to an arena that opened in 1969 and is 45 years old! What would prompt them to do so? Population.

"It's right in the middle of a hockey hotbed, I guess you'd say, with all the teams that are within an hour or two," former NHLer Ken Morrow told John Matisz of the Ottawa Sun. "You're down in Detroit in an hour, you've got the Red Wings, the University of Michigan an hour away. You've got Saginaw, Windsor, Sarnia, Grand Rapids across the state. In that regard, it's right in the middle of everything, hockey-wise."

The people of Flint also have seen some success as the Flint Generals were a long-term team in the community in both the IHL and UHL dating back to when Perani Arena first opened. However, as Mr. Morrow pointed out, this is more about maximizing profits by attracting more fans to the arena with its proximity to all the major hockey hubs in Michigan. The arena plays less of a factor if they can fill 4000 seats per night in Flint.

So it needs to be asked again: is junior hockey no longer a community thing?

The smaller communities in the WHL seem to be seeing a resurgence in support as cities like Prince Albert, Red Deer, Moose Jaw, and Brandon continue to see excellent fan support despite the older barns some of these teams play in. The QMJHL have had a few teams move around, but the teams in Rimouski, Drummondville, and Shawinigan seem to be holding their own. It's the OHL that is seeing the smaller teams vacate communities where they were the only team in town for newer arenas and/or larger centers in order to turn a (better) profit.

I get that hockey is a business. I understand no one enjoys seeing red ink year after year. I also understand that citizens of these communities want to see civic improvements from their tax dollars that include things like infrastructure, roads, sewers, and services. Building and/or renovating arenas don't seem to factor in for some of these communities, and the result is that the local junior team looks elsewhere for support.

Is it fair? No. Junior teams are the fabric in which these communities were woven together, bringing people from all walks of life in these communities together. Tickets are affordable, families show up together, and they watch two teams of teenagers battle it out on the ice as each member of those teams chases his big-league dreams. However, that fabric is slowly falling to the wayside as teams move to larger, more modern centers. And that's a shame.

There will be no joy in Belleville next season. Forget the Memorial Cup runs and the many players who played there and made it to the NHL. These Bulls are heading to Hamilton, and gone will be the memories of them, the McFarlands, an Allan Cup championship in 1958, a gold medal at the World Ice Hockey Championships in 1959, and a J. Ross Robertson Cup in 1999. All of it will slowly circle the drain of vanishing memories as time marches on.

But hey, it's just business, right?

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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