The arena the Erie Otters call home was just renovated and major junior hockey has come and gone in Hamilton, Ont., before — and neither of those facts really matter.
Ultimately, it could come down to where the Otters' managing partner, the venerable Sherry Bassin, who is in his early 70s, wants to operate a franchise. That is why, even though the rumour about the Otters moving to the Hammer has come up before, one is inclined to believe there could be some meat on the bone. Perhaps it does play into Hamilton's dreaming-in-Technicolor NHL ambitions — get the AHL out, get the OHL in and that clears space for a big-league team, so the perhaps blue-sky thinking goes — but it is just not going away.
Bassin has been a fixture in the Ontario Hockey League for decades. Moving Connor McDavid and Co. is only one potential exit plan for someone who might be looking to scale back his workload. It is the one that's in the public realm, though.
From Scott Radley:
Multiple sources tell The Spectator that at a HECFI board meeting on Friday, an OHL franchise — strongly believed to be the Erie Otters — will likely receive the right to begin working on a deal that could see the junior team move to Hamilton in time for the start of next season.
If a deal can be struck, this could mean the end for the American Hockey League franchise that's called the city home for the past 17 years.
... back in the spring an unnamed OHL team expressed interest in moving to this city.
Nothing came of that move. But recently, Global Spectrum — the independent management company that is expected to take over operations of Copps — told the HECFI board in a letter that an OHL team had again expressed interest in moving here. (Hamilton Spectator)
Hamilton has been a minor pro city since the early 1990s, variously housing the top farm teams of seemingly every Canadian-based NHL franchise except the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have the strongest following in the city. (Not really, but over that time Hamilton has been affiliated with the Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers and presently the Montreal Canadiens.) Reading between the lines, it sounds like Michael Andlauer, owner of the Bulldogs, isn't having much luck getting anywhere with a lease renewal — it almost sounds like a force-out.
An OHL team is less of a roadblock than the AHL, pure and simple. Now, you might say Hamiltonians should accept their lot as a midsized city within the Leafs' protected turf. That's assuming common sense, though, and this is a city whose fumblin' and bumblin' has led to its CFL team decamping to the University of Guelph for next season.
(If you'll allow a brief digression, in a better world the Leafs' AHL affiliate would play at Copps Coliseum; MLSE would run an OHL team out of Ricoh Coliseum instead of the Toronto Marlies. It would work in Hamilton; a junior team located in the urban core might have a better chance than the ones located amid urban sprawl. But hey, it's easy to tell rich people how to spend their money.)
The Otters moved from Niagara Falls, Ont., to Erie, Pa., in 1996. Coincidentally, that was the same season the AHL Bulldogs moved to Hamilton. That section of Southern Ontario has historically struggled to sustain support for the OHL. Whether that is intractable is debatable; the Niagara IceDogs seem to have found footing in St. Catharines; their co-owner Bill Burke also would not say no to having a rival in Hamilton.
Bassin and the Otters have resolutely denied any relocation talk. It's understandable in terms of transition. Copps Coliseum is too cavernous for major junior. However, the Otters' value could increase if a suitable venue was ever built in Hamilton. So there is that.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.