November 6, 2012
Battalion move to North Bay makes good sense
By DAVE POLLARD, QMI Agency
Scott Abbott might want to think about shopping for a new set of snow tires.
Or, since money isn't the same issue with Abbott as it is with most of us, look into chartering a private plane for the duration of the 2013-14 Ontario Hockey League season.
Whichever way Abbott, one of the men responsible for giving us Trivial Pursuit, goes on his travel options next winter, one thing is sure — his commitment to attending Battalion games will be put to the test. And given how few games Abbott, as faithful an owner as there is in the league, has missed over the last decade and a half — team staffers put the figure at less than a half-dozen, home and away — that's saying a lot.
But it shows quite clearly that Abbott finally came to the realization that trying to make junior hockey financially viable in Brampton was an unwinnable battle. And grew weary of writing million-dollar checks to cover losses every season.
When news broke Monday that the Battalion, Abbott's brainchild and, let's face it, his baby for the past 15 years, was pulling up stakes and heading for warmer (figuratively) climes in North Bay, it ended months, if not years, of speculation that the franchise was looking to get out of Brampton. Tough as it might have been to pull the plug, the bottom line is it was the right decision.
"For Scott it was a difficult decision," Battalion president Mike Griffin said. "Those people (who supported the team) are going to be disappointed. But at the end of the day, there comes a point where you can't continue. From Day 1 the support hasn't been there."
I have no doubt it pained Abbott a great deal to make the call but the question is, what the heck took so long to bail on Brampton?
With so few bums in the seats almost from the outset of the franchise, I wouldn't have been at all surprised if the Battalion had moved years ago. The team has a hard-core group of supporters, sure, but the numbers just aren't great enough to make it work in Brampton. Been that way for 15 years, probably would have been for another 15, even if the top marketers in the world were hired.
In North Bay, Abbott has a smaller market but one that will be willing to embrace the return of OHL hockey, even if the city has been burned once before. Ten years ago the Centennials were sold to Michigan businessman Richard Garber and moved to Saginaw, where they became the Spirit.
Mayor Al McDonald, a proponent of the Battalion's move north, was one of the key players attempting to keep the Centennials in North Bay. He was deputy mayor in 2002 and chaired the Save the Cents committee that drummed up commitments for 2,700 season tickets on relatively short notice.
Now North Bay hockey fans must be convinced to pony up for season tickets again — 2,000 for each of the next three seasons — for the move to go through, pending approval by the OHL board of governors, who will meet Nov. 19 to vote on it. Should be a slam dunk.
"From our discussions with the mayor, they're confident that number will be achieved," Griffin said. "The confidence comes partly from that (Save the Cents campaign). But we haven't put a time frame on it. The campaign will be launched on Thursday. Let's see what happens with it."
A poll on the North Bay Nugget website Tuesday suggested the 2,000 threshold should be reached. More than 450 voters had already indicated they would buy season tickets.
But support by the community was never at the fore when discussions arose about North Bay's ability to support an OHL team. It's a hockey city, pure and simple.
No, the elephant in the room has always been aging, under-sized Memorial Gardens. City council addressed the problem Monday, agreeing to a $12 million capital improvement budget to renovate the Gardens (with a $5 million interest-free loan from the team), a decision that effectively opened the door to the Battalion agreeing in principle to a 15-year lease.
"The building was going to be a critical piece of the puzzle," Griffin agreed.
A makeover to the Gardens isn't the optimal solution but who knows what the future holds in North Bay. If the Battalion put down roots in the city, maybe it can see clear to eventually build a new arena.
Cripes, maybe Abbott can spring to have a new rink built.
One that comes complete with a helicopter pad, just to give him one more travel option.
BUTLER ON BOARD
Sounds like Stan Butler will soon be looking for new digs in North Bay.
Butler, the only coach and general manager the Brampton Battalion has known in 15 years of existence, is intent on making the trip up Highway 11 when the franchise relocates to North Bay during the off-season.
"I plan to be coaching the hockey team next year so that means I will be moving to North Bay as well and I guess the one advantage that I have over some of the other guys in the business is that 16 years ago, I had to set up a franchise in Brampton, finding doctors, billets, and all those fun things so I have a good idea on how to do that," Butler told Sportsnet 590 The Fan.
Butler, who is in the final year of a four-year contract but is expected to re-sign, will give the Battalion hockey operations department some much-needed stability in a turbulent time. The importance of having a steadying hand for the transition to a new city cannot be understated.
But Butler's biggest challenge in the next few months will be keeping his team focused on the task at hand, even though the number of empty seats at the Powerade Centre will likely increase as the season winds down.