How much longer will the Battalion bivouac in Brampton?
And, perhaps more importantly, will anybody beyond the handful of diehards care if the OHL team packs up its olive-green gear and heads for a new battlefield?
It would appear Brampton's battle-weary franchise, which has not renewed its lease at the Powerade Centre, is destined to find itself a new home. And judging by the number of butts in the seats at the Battalion's season opener -- announced attendance in The Bunker was just under 2,400, an embarrassingly-small number for a city of more than half a million, but only team management knows if those tickets were all paid for -- the team won't be missed by many.
So, how do you like the sound of the North Bay Battalion? Could happen.
It's a rumour that the team has already decided to leave town, sure, and Battalion brass is staying tight-lipped about whether the team is even negotiating a new lease with the city of Brampton, never mind the possibility of relocating. Battalion president Mike Griffin offered a polite "no comment" to every question about the lease, a 15-year deal which runs out at the end of this season, and/or potential interest from other cities, two of which are reportedly interested.
But the reality is, rumblings about the team moving up Highway 11 to The Bay have been around for the last year. The Battalion has an expiring lease in a city that has barely supported the team since its inception in 1998, so it's only natural that the rumour mill would start spitting out the names of potential destinations, particularly ones that have been home to an OHL team in the past.
The Battalion has traditionally been one of the lowest-drawing teams in the OHL and averaged less than 2,000 per game the last two seasons. The attendance high-water mark, for pete's sake, is 2,734 in 2005-06.
To show you how far off the radar the Battalion is in Brampton, even the Mississauga St. Mike's Majors out-drew the Battalion last season, averaging more than 2,400 at the Hershey Centre. And that franchise was sold over the summer, in large part because deep-pocketed owner Eugene Melnyk was sick of losing money year after year.
Compare the Battalion numbers with those of the Barrie Colts, who have never averaged less than 3,400 in a market that's one-quarter the size of Brampton. Or how about the 9,000-plus the London Knights jam into the, ugh, Bud Gardens, on a nightly basis.
Yeah, yeah, I know, it's apples to oranges comparing Brampton to London. Different markets, different dynamics.
Doesn't matter, really.
The bottom line is, if it hasn't worked in 15 years, there's no fixing the problem in Brampton.
And let's face it, a move out of Brampton isn't just logical, it's necessary if owner Scott Abbott wants to stop bleeding money (maybe for the first time since he bought the expansion franchise) to support his junior hockey passion. Losing nearly a million bucks a season doesn't sit well with anyone, even wealthy owners who are their team's biggest fan.
Through all the relocation chatter, which is sure to heat up as the season goes on if the team keeps everyone in the dark, coach/GM Stan Butler has the unenviable task of keeping his 20-plus players forcused on the task at hand.
"We know where we're playing this year and that's in Brampton," Butler said. "Because of that, we have to go out and play the best we can every night and go from there. We don't have a crystal ball, we don't know what's going to happen. As a group I think we're mature enough to keep our focus and go from there.
"We put a decent product on the ice year in, year out and I guess the people here have got to make a decision whether it's important."
Judging from how many showed up last Friday, the decision has been made.
By both sides.
THE LAST WORD
So the Windsor Spitfires will have an extra $150K in their pockets -- and hang on to their first-round pick in 2014 -- after the OHL reduced their punishment for recruiting violations. That's good news for the Spitfires, no doubt.
But even better news, for the rest of the league anyway, is the OHL got the Spitfires to admit they broke the rules, something that had long been whispered about.
Hopefully, the result will be that bending the rules to attract players will vanish from the league. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but this is a start.