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