Hamil­ton is on a five-game win­ning streak … but loses bid to host cen­ten­nial Me­mo­rial Cup

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - TERI PECOSKIE

The Hamil­ton Bull­dogs are not host­ing the cen­ten­nial Me­mo­rial Cup.

The pres­i­dent of the Cana­dian Hockey League said the team checked off nearly all the boxes in its bid to hold the 2018 tour­na­ment — it has a large mar­ket, great own­er­ship and on-ice tal­ent. But its down­town home, First-On­tario Cen­tre, was “a con­cern and an is­sue” for mem­bers of the site se­lec­tion com­mit­tee.

“At the end of the day, it was the fa­cil­ity that would not al­low Hamil­ton to stay in the race,” David Branch said.

The team’s hopes were dashed Satur­day with the news that the Western Hockey League’s Regina Pats had been awarded the tour­na­ment, which is the cham­pi­onship for ma­jor junior hockey in this coun­try.

The CHL made the an­nounce­ment just be­fore Hamil­ton’s 7 p.m. game against the Ottawa 67’s.

Regina beat out the Bull­dogs and fel­low On­tario Hockey League team the Oshawa Gen­er­als with a bid that stressed the his­tory of Pats hockey, the strength of its cur­rent ros­ter and its his­tor­i­cal as­so­ci­a­tion with the armed forces, which is sig­nif­i­cant con­sid­er­ing the tro­phy is ded­i­cated to the sol­diers who have died in ser­vice to the coun­try. The CHL’s No. 1 ranked Pats played in the first Me­mo­rial Cup in 1919 and are named for the fa­mous reg­i­ment, the Princess Pa­tri­cia’s Cana­dian Light In­fantry.

Bull­dogs owner Michael And­lauer said he was dis­ap­pointed and proud in the wake of the de­ci­sion, “be­cause a lot of peo­ple put a lot of good work” into Hamil­ton’s bid. He also said the Pats will rep­re­sent the league well with their mil­i­tary lin­eage and his­tory.

“They’re go­ing to put on a great show and that’s fan­tas­tic. Con­grat­u­la­tions to them,” he added.

The con­di­tion of First-On­tario Cen­tre was more than a mi­nor fac­tor in the se­lec­tion com­mit­tee’s de­ci­sion. The rink can seat 17,000 and is lo­cated a short drive from the GTA and sev­eral ma­jor hockey mar­kets, in­clud­ing Lon­don and Kitch­ener — that means the CHL is for­go­ing a raft of po­ten­tial rev­enue by award­ing the tour­na­ment to Regina where the Brandt Cen­tre fits 7,000 at most.

“There are a lot of things you take into con­sid­er­a­tion about the qual­ity of a bid,” Branch ex­plained.

“Yes, the busi­ness plan is im­por­tant. But it’s the en­vi­ron­ment. It’s what you’re rep­re­sent­ing your na­tional cham­pi­onship in and ev­ery­thing else.”

In par­tic­u­lar, com­mit­tee mem­bers took is­sue with the age of Hamil­ton’s 30-year-old fa­cil­ity and the fact that it lacks ameni­ties such as a de­hu­mid­i­fi­ca­tion sys­tem — which could lead to fog and softer ice, with large crowds and the tim­ing of the tour­na­ment.

It is also short on lux­ury boxes and lacks a high def­i­ni­tion score­board, which is re­quired of Me­mo­rial Cup hosts.

There are me­chan­i­cal is­sues as well. For ex­am­ple, an es­ca­la­tor that shut­tles fans from ice level to street level has been im­mo­bi­lized for three years or more and the main el­e­va­tor is prone to prob­lems.

At least that’s the pic­ture And­lauer painted when he ap­peared in the press gon­dola — pant­ing — mid­way through Satur­day’s game.

“I just walked up all these stairs be­cause the el­e­va­tor is bro­ken,” he said. Be­tween that and the es­ca­la­tors, he added, “there’s a story to be told.”

Bull­dogs pres­i­dent and gen­eral man­ager Steve Staios had yet to hear from the CHL or the se­lec­tion com­mit­tee when The Spec­ta­tor spoke to him Satur­day.

How­ever, he pre­dicted — cor­rectly — that the build­ing played a role in Hamil­ton’s failed bid.

“There are cer­tain stan­dards you need to match, so I feel like if any­thing would de­rail this that would be it,” he said.

Staios also said he’s ea­ger for feed­back from the se­lec­tion com­mit­tee — he’s “good with crit­i­cism” and will do any­thing within his con­trol to ad­dress the short­com­ings in Hamil­ton’s pitch be­fore the tour­na­ment re­turns to On­tario in 2020.

If the fix in­volves an over­haul of First-On­tario Cen­tre, it cer­tainly won’t be cheap. A pri­vate sec­tor re­port on op­tions for up­dat­ing the city-owned arena is ex­pected to go to coun­cil next month, and, as The Spec­ta­tor’s An­drew Dreschel re­ported in Novem­ber, it in­cludes sev­eral op­tions for up­grades.

The re­port and con­struc­tion costs re­main con­fi­den­tial, but it’s an­tic­i­pated a full ren­o­va­tion would cost un­der $300 mil­lion, while a par­tial ren­o­va­tion, which would in­volve turn­ing the lower bowl into a state-of-the-art fa­cil­ity that seats roughly 8,000 fans — about 1,900 more than the av­er­age OHL arena — would be un­der $100 mil­lion.

Satur­day’s de­ci­sion brings to an end a process that started in early Septem­ber with Hamil­ton’s pre­lim­i­nary bid, which in­cluded in­for­ma­tion about the venue, park­ing, hockey op­er­a­tions and ho­tels, but noth­ing about the up­front costs of host­ing the event.

At the time, And­lauer said it would cost in the mil­lions to host the tour­na­ment, al­though it could yield sig­nif­i­cant re­turn. He also said he would need some kind of fi­nan­cial in­vest­ment from the city.

Mayor Fred Eisen­berger and some mem­bers of coun­cil said they sup­ported the bid in prin­ci­ple. But there was also an­other mes­sage — they don’t sign blank che­ques.

When the Bull­dogs made their for­mal pitch to host the cham­pi­onship in Jan­uary, they still didn’t have a fi­nan­cial com­mit­ment from the city.

In­stead, And­lauer spoke of the po­ten­tial mar­ket reach of a Me­mo­rial Cup in Hamil­ton and suc­cess­ful past events hosted at the down­town arena, in­clud­ing a sold-out Calder Cup fi­nal, the 1990 Me­mo­rial Cup and 1987 Canada Cup.

The team’s on-ice po­ten­tial was also a key el­e­ment of the pitch. With at least three NHL prospects el­i­gi­ble to re­turn, the Bull­dogs are poised to peak next sea­son — and that, said Staios, won’t change.

Mean­while, head coach John Gru­den said the only thing that is dif­fer­ent in light of the com­mit­tee’s de­ci­sion is that his team will now have to make it to the Me­mo­rial Cup the “old fash­ioned” way. As the tour­na­ment hosts, the Pats are awarded an au­to­matic berth.

“You have to earn it. That’s the way it is — that’s the way life is. So that doesn’t change any­thing about what we’re do­ing and the process of what we’re try­ing to do here,” he added.

The 2018 tour­na­ment takes place from May 17 to 27. In ad­di­tion to the Pats, it will fea­ture the cham­pi­ons from the WHL, OHL and Que­bec Ma­jor Junior Hockey League and be played in a tra­di­tional round robin for­mat.

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