Face it, it’s now a relic
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.