Face it, it’s now a relic

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - SCOTT RADLEY

When it came down to choos­ing the host city for next year’s Me­mo­rial Cup — a big deal since it’s the 100th an­niver­sary of the Cana­dian junior hockey cham­pi­onship — Hamil­ton should have been the favourite. It had so many things go­ing for it.

It’s close to Toronto and all the big­gest me­dia out­lets which would’ve meant heavy cov­er­age and ex­ten­sive ex­po­sure. It’s smack in the mid­dle of the most-pop­u­lous part of the coun­try and within a short driv­ing dis­tance of six other OHL fan bases. The Bull­dogs will be peak­ing com­pet­i­tively by the time the event rolls around.

Most of all, its arena has more than 17,000 seats which was nearly three times that of Regina’s Brandt Cen­tre which seem­ingly made it per­fect to make the Cana­dian Hockey League some se­ri­ous dough. Even if the place wasn’t full and only at­tracted 9,000 fans a game, that’s still 2,000 more tick­ets sold per night than the al­ter­na­tive could of­fer.

So how bad must the se­lec­tion com­mit­tee have thought First-On­tario Cen­tre was to ig­nore all those ben­e­fits and choose some­where else? An­swer: Very.

Make no mis­take, the arena was the is­sue. As The Spec­ta­tor’s Teri Pecoskie ex­plains in the pa­per Tues­day, Cana­dian Hockey League pres­i­dent David Branch specif­i­cally pointed to the rink as the rea­son the Cup won’t be held here. It sim­ply wasn’t good enough.

Three decades have taken a toll. In the sports world, it’s now a relic.

For years, there have been dis­cus­sions about what should be

done with the place. Should it be ren­o­vated a lit­tle? Should it be gut­ted and thor­oughly re­designed? Should it be torn down and re­placed with some­thing smaller?

There’s never been a level of ur­gency to re­solve that. But the fact that a ma­jor sports or­ga­ni­za­tion, aided by a num­ber of big-time movers and shak­ers in the sports world who made up the se­lec­tion com­mit­tee, have es­sen­tially writ­ten off the build­ing sug­gest we’re at a cross­roads. We ei­ther have to do some­thing about it or ac­cept we’re in the se­nior ages of the arena’s life and de­cide we can live with­out host­ing some ma­jor sports events — and the eco­nomic spinoffs that ac­com­pany such things — that might’ve come years ago. Be­fore long, pos­si­bly other things, too.

A Me­mo­rial Cup? Bull­dogs owner Michael And­lauer says Branch’s com­ments sug­gest we’re never get­ting one with the arena as it is now.

“Sta­tus quo can’t be tol­er­ated,” And­lauer says. “It needs to be looked at and it can’t be put on the side burner un­til the next elec­tion.”

Some will chalk this up to a wealthy owner tak­ing aim at the pub­lic dime for his own en­rich­ment. His­tory would sug­gest that’s un­fair. Since he bought the team in 2004, he has paid for new score­boards, a new sound sys­tem, a prostyle dress­ing room, an out­door game and more. In that time he says he’s lost “seven dig­its, plus.”

He says he sim­ply wants an arena that’s as good for the fan ex­pe­ri­ence as St. Catharines, Mis­sis­sauga or Lon­don.

In­ter­est­ingly, the fu­ture of the rink is sched­uled to come up at city coun­cil on Wed­nes­day as part of a larger re­port on in­fra­struc­ture. Specif­i­cally, an up­date on the idea of a pri­vate-pub­lic part­ner­ship that’s be­ing ex­plored to do some­thing about the place.

And­lauer says he’s will­ing to in­vest some of his own money into a new or sig­nif­i­cantly retro­fit­ted build­ing if that’s the di­rec­tion ul­ti­mately taken.

“But I won’t put money into a build­ing I don’t feel is in the best in­ter­ests of Hamil­ton fans,” he says. “For sports or en­ter­tain­ment.”

Even with this week­end’s splash of cold wa­ter by the CHL, it’s hard to imag­ine coun­cil show­ing too much in­ter­est in do­ing any­thing dras­tic. In the midst of a bit­ter de­bate over LRT and with the sta­dium war still a fresh mem­ory, it seems un­likely too many coun­cil­lors will have an ap­petite to start throw­ing tens of mil­lions of dol­lars at an arena.

But this week­end’s an­nounce­ment makes clear that some kind of de­ci­sion has to be made be­fore long. The place is only get­ting older. Coun­cil must start head­ing down a road of do­ing some­thing about the build­ing or de­cid­ing clearly and di­rectly that it will do noth­ing and live with the re­sult.

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