Scott Abbott cleared the major hurdle to move his Battalion to North Bay, but not without a look back and who his team is leaving in Brampton.
Abbott and Battalion president Mike Griffin, who received unanimous approval Monday from the OHL to move north next season, could not have asked for a tighter turnaround. The time lapse between North Bay city council approving a $12-million upgrade to the city's Memorial Gardens and the league signing off was only two weeks. It makes it easier to move ahead making sure the OHL's reboot in North Bay goes smoothly. A local campaign that resulted in nearly 2,150 three-year season-ticket commitments was a big part of welcoming back a city that lost its Centennials in 2002.
"I was confident that we could get to the 2,000 by December 31st, which was the challenge," Abbott said Monday night. "But to have it done in six days from the launch of the campaign was unbelievable.
"This is a milestone, certainly, but there's a lot of work to be done," he added. "Bringing the Memorial Gardens up to contemporary OHL standards. The building is in good shape. It was probably overbuilt for the mid-'50s when it went up, which is keeping us in good stead right now ... there is plenty of work to be done to be ready for the fall of 2013.
"But I'm quite pleased that we've managed it and been able to be aboveboard about it and do it early by November 19. I understand that today is a bad day for our loyal fans in Brampton. I've always said that we have a hard core of very loyal, very enthusiastic and very knowledgeable fans in Brampton, there just haven't been enough of them. But I do feel for them today, yes."
Abbott was the only holdover among the owners of the three teams the OHL placed in the Greater Toronto Area in the late 1990s. Three different teams, essentially, have played in Mississauga — the IceDogs and then Eugene Melnyk-owned Majors, who were bought by Elliott Kerr this spring and renamed Steelheads. The Battalion struggled to get traction playing in Peel Region in a crowded marketplace, typically playing before crowds of fewer than 2,000. Monday's vote means they will be in a new setting as a star attraction.
"Scott has been such a positive influence on our league," OHL commissioner David Branch said. "He's certainly had his challenges and now he gets to go to a market where we're very pleased that North Bay will see the return of OHL hockey and we recognize the passion and interest there. So it should really be an excellent opportunity for Scott to feel that enthusiasm and support.
It's phenomenal," Branch said of the reception in the Gateway City. "I was up there last Wednesday and you can feel the enthusiasm and excitement all throughout North Bay."
Players saw enthusiasm
By coincidence, the Battalion made a northern swing in between the North Bay and OHL votes. That included a road win last week over the Sudbury Wolves in which a sizable number of newly minted Battalion fans made the two-hour trip to support their new home team. Abbott believes that addressed doubts players had about the move.
"As [coach] Stan [Butler] has said, the players are teenagers and they're sometimes resistant to change, counter-intuitively enough," he said. "They don't necessarily embrace everything 100 per cent right away. I think we saw that — some did, some didn't."
"I think they were very impressed last Wednesday night when we played in Sudbury and there were 270 fans there. The Wolves ran a promotion where if you could demonstrate North Bay residency, you would get $10 off an $18 ticket. They sat in one section that was to the right of our goaltender [Matej Machovsky] in the first and third period. We won 4-2, players went off the bench, mobbed Machovsky and then went to the corner to salute those fans and they went crazy. I'm told two of the players went on the buses that had brought fans to the game and thanked them."
The relocation will not affect the league's divisional structure. The OHL's Central Division already stretches across three distinct geographical regions of the province, with Sudbury in the north, Barrie in central Ontario and the Mississauga Steelheads and Niagara IceDogs in southern Ontario.
Abbott notes the North Bay Battalion — get used to saying it — already have eight games a season against rival Sudbury. They, do, however, play only twice a year vs. the West Division's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, who are their second-nearest opponent. The OHL already has an unbalanced schedule that allows teams in close geographic proximity to play each more often despite not being in the same division or conference. It's early in the game to determine if anything will change.
"We didn't get into that at all and that will come in due course," Branch said, referring to Monday's board of governors meeting.
Abbott notes the Battalion's preferred game night is also traditionally one in his team's new city.
"I'm told Thursday night is hockey night in North Bay," he said.
So what kind of team can North Bay expect? The Battalion (11-8-3-2, .562 point pct.) are tied for fifth in the Eastern Conference. They are 5-1 since the North Bay vote two weeks ago, almost as if that decision caused a cloud to lift. Butler's current lineup only has seven 19-year-old or overage players, so it will not be a retooling year.
"We have a team that's very well-built for next year," Abbott said. "We have two overagers in the lineup and it could be that they're the only players we lose. I would suggest maybe the 19-year-old import goalie Matej Machovsky might move on as well.
"But we'll be able to bring back virtually everybody. We have a lot of young talented kids, 16- and 17-year-olds [such as Blake Clarke and Brandon Robinson]. We are playing the heck out of them as it is. They're learning a lot and should be very well placed for next year."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.