Hamilton Bulldogs sell AHL franchise, buy the OHL Belleville Bulls

The Hamilton Bulldogs have sold their AHL franchise to the Montreal Canadiens and will buy the OHL Belleville Bulls, the team said on Thursday.

The Belleville Bulls will be renamed the Hamilton Bulldogs for the start of the 2015-16 season

Hamilton Bulldogs owner Michael Andlauer announced Thursday the AHL franchise will move and the Belleville Bulls will come to Hamilton and become the new Bulldogs. Team president Steve Ostaszewicz, left, said the team is Hamilton's now more than ever. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

The Hamilton Bulldogs have sold their AHL franchise to the Montreal Canadiens and will buy the OHL Belleville Bulls, the team said on Thursday.

Bulldogs owner Michael Andlauer announced at a media event Thursday afternoon that he's selling the AHL franchise affiliation to the Canadiens at the end of the 2014-15 hockey season. Andlauer made the announcement at FirstOntario Centre in Hamilton, home of the Bulldogs.

It's always been Hamilton's team, and now more than ever.- Bulldogs president Stephen Ostaszewicz

He's purchased the Bulls, which will move to Hamilton and be renamed the Bulldogs for the start of the 2015-16 season. 

Even though the team is a junior-league team, Andlauer stressed that "Hamilton Bulldog hockey will be around for many, many years to come."

In the meantime, he said, there are three more home games in the season. Andlauer said he told the players Thursday morning, "We're still family." 

'This is a great city'

Andlauer said "instincts," and a connection he feels to his "pretty humble" childhood roots growing up with a single mom, root him in Hamilton. 

"This is a great city," Andlauer said. "Maybe it's because it's a bit of me in this city." 

Andlauer was part of a group that bought the AHL franchise in 2002, and bought the team outright in 2004. He referenced a spotty history of other hockey teams coming and going in Hamilton. He declined to say how much money changed hands in the deals.

"What we were able to create is something that's sustainable, in this city which has a history, probably, of less-than-stellar hockey successes," Andlauer said. 

Andlauer said while the FirstOntario Centre is "clearly too big" for either an OHL or AHL team, the team will stay in the arena for the next three years at least, he said. The Bulldogs logo will stay the same, and Andlauer said he hopes to add an additional colour jersey to the mix in an upcoming season. 

But not quite yet. 

"Bruiser's got to change his shirt — and that's a big shirt to make," he said.

The existing Bulldogs team is going to St. John’s, Newfoundland. They'll replace the IceCaps, Winnipeg's affiliate. Previous reports said there was a "strong chance" the Winnipeg Jets would be moving their AHL farm team to the MTS Centre in Winnipeg.

Andlauer said he attended the gold medal game at Air Canada Centre for the World Junior's and said the screaming was unlike any NHL game he'd been to. That and the excitement generated by the OHL television series makes him excited to see players that age playing in Hamitlon.

He said the opportunity to strike these deals came about six weeks ago.

Right timing 

Eventually the Canadiens could have exercised a right to buy the AHL franchise, and Andlauer wanted to move when the timing worked for him. 

Andlauer said he took advantage of a chance that arose to buy the Bulls and sell the AHL franchise at a time that Hamilton would continue to have a hockey team. There are a lot of cities in North America that are "desirous of having elite hockey" and there are only 20 OHL teams and 30 AHL teams, he said.

"For me, it opened a window of opportunity with respect to ensuring the succession of hockey in Hamilton," he said. "I'm the one who pushed this along. I didn't want to be in a position where we didn't have a team for Hamilton."

The name of the St. John's AHL team will remain the IceCaps, and new uniforms will be released in the next few months.

After the announcement, Coun. Terry Whitehead described the buzz about junior hockey he's seen grow, in the World Juniors and other television exposure. "I think there's more opportunity" with the OHL, he said.

Bulldogs team president Stephen Ostaszewicz said he's excited to see all of the community feelings that go with junior hockey, not least the sense of ownership due to the players staying with billets in the community. 

"It's always been Hamilton's team, and now more than ever," he said.

Groomed prospects

I didn't want to be in a position where we didn't have a team for Hamilton.- Michael Andlauer, Hamilton Bulldogs owner

The Bulldogs have groomed a "great crop of prospects" in Hamilton over the last 11 years, Andlauer said. He said he's proud of the team's accomplishments: Winning the Calder Cup championship in 2007 and the Outdoor Classic game in 2012.

The team may develop some regional rivals with OHL teams in Niagara, Guelph, London and Kitchener. 

"I think that happens naturally," Andlauer said. 

Hamilton has "a long and storied history in junior hockey, and we look forward to building on this tradition starting next year," said David Branch, OHL commissioner.

The city has long hoped for an NHL team, and city council has a professional sports committee whose mandate, in part, is to entice one.

"The preferred option of Hamiltonians would be the NHL," he said. "Having said that, any time we have hockey in Hamilton, it’s a good thing for Hamilton."

Another Subban comes to play

The Bulls have one player on their roster who's been drafted to the NHL, Jordan Subban (Vancouver, fourth round, 115th overall in 2013). He is the younger brother of Canadiens star P.K. Subban who played briefly with the Bulldogs. It also has five players listed on the NHL Central Scouting's North American skaters mid-term ranking, which was released on Jan. 20. 

Those players include Matt Luff (95), Justin Lemcke (119), Trent Fox (143), Adam Laishram (186) and Connor Hicks (10, goaltender). 

The AHL Bulldogs were the city's first and only team to date to win a professional hockey championship, the team said in a statement. It was first established in 1996 when the Edmonton Oilers relocated their farm team from Cape Breton.

The Quebec Citadelles merged with the Bulldogs in 2002-03, and after a season of duel affiliation, changed to the Canadians in 2003-04. Andlauer became majority owner in 2004.