Bringing OHL team to North Bay worries officials

Northeastern Ontario is on-track to get another OHL hockey team now that the City of North Bay has approved an agreement-in-principle that will see the Brampton Battalion relocate and make Memorial Gardens its new home ice.

News of agreement to bring Brampton Battalion to North Bay met with mixed reviews

Connor McDavid of the Erie Otters tries to get past Nicholas Foglia of the Brampton Battalion during the first period of an Ontario Hockey League game at Erie Insurance Arena, in Erie, Pa., on Oct. 5, 2012. (Jack Hanrahan/Erie Times-News/AP)

Northeastern Ontario is on-track to get another OHL hockey team now that the City of North Bay has approved an agreement-in-principle that will see the Brampton Battalion relocate and make Memorial Gardens its new home ice.

But the news is being met with mixed reviews from the local hockey community, despite a unanimous vote at North Bay city council Monday night.

"This deal to bring the OHL team back to North Bay and give the gardens the renovations it needs will virtually cost the taxpayers no money," said Mayor Al Mcdonald. "It will be user-paid."

The agreement, which involves a 15-year lease, still needs to be approved by the OHL board of governors.

If the deal moves ahead, renovations to the Gardens would see the arena expanded to 4,200 seats and include 10 new corporate boxes and an extended ice surface.

Memorial Gardens renovations

The renovations to Memorial Gardens will cost $12 million. Most of that cost will be backed by the Battalions, but the city fronted $1.1 million to complete that deal. That $1.1 million will come from an interest-free loan from the Battalion and by charging a $2.50 per ticket capital reserve fee.

North Bay will also use $3.9 million from its 10-year capital plan for the arena and will look for an additional $2 million from other levels of government.

Arena renovations include the following:

  • Expand the seating capacity to at least 4,200 seats, up from 3,500
  • Add in 10 corporate boxes and a media suite
  • Expand the ice pad surface to regulation size (an additional 10 ft)

These renovations will mostly get underway after the regular hockey season is done this year, however exterior arena work will be started shortly.

‘Pushing two teams out’

But will the revamped venue help the city meet an OHL-imposed condition of selling 2,000 season tickets in advance?

Randy Blake, associate general manager for the junior hockey team North Bay Trappers, doesn’t think the OHL's condition is realistic.

The Trappers, along with the Nipissing Lakers, are currently the two major hockey teams in the city and Blake said he doesn't think three teams can survive in North Bay.

"It's nice, but again you're pushing two teams out of town that have provided hockey for 10 years since the Centennials left," he said.

The former OHL team was deemed unprofitable and the North Bay Centennials were sold to a group of American investors and relocated to Saginaw, Mich., to become the Spirit in 2002.

Blake noted bringing back an OHL team to the community is troubling.

"There wouldn't be room in Memorial Gardens for three teams," he said.

"All three teams would require sponsorship money from the city from all different businesses, and the OHL team would definitely get 100 per cent sponsorship throughout Memorial Gardens, so there would be no money left over for the other two teams."

Blake said the Trappers "would either fold or move to another rink in town or to another city."

"And from what I hear, the Lakers may build their own arena up at the university."

Fans don’t come out ‘if you’re not winning’

Mayor McDonald said the first new OHL home-team games in North Bay are already slotted for the 2013-2014 season. "I believe there is [enough of a fan base]," McDonald said.

"Obviously the OHL team will probably have the biggest draw in the city and the other two teams have their dedicated fan base already. We're very confident that all three teams can work together."

Ted Thomson, former co-owner of the North Bay Centennials from 1994-2002, said fans "were really, really sorry to see the Centennials leave town, and I would hope that they would be here supporting another OHL team coming to town in a big way." 

Thomson recalled that, in 2002, fans were "maybe a little apathetic."

"If you're not winning they don't seem to come out," he said. The Battalion made their debut in 1998-99 and will complete a 15-year lease agreement at Brampton's Powerade Centre at the end of the season.

The team is last in the Central Division with a 6-7-5 record.

With files from Canadian Press