The last time I spoke with Al McDonald, he was desperately trying to save his local hockey team.
At the time, the North Bay Centennials were on the verge of being sold and shipped off to Saginaw, Mich. The community had been rallying – people donating whatever money they could afford – in order to raise the $3 million needed to save their Ontario Hockey League team.
"We've always taken the stance that it's in the best interests of the OHL to keep the team in Ontario, and more importantly, to keep the team in Northern Ontario," said McDonald, the then-deputy mayor of North Bay.
Despite selling 2,700 season tickets, the drive fell short and the team moved.
That was almost 10 years ago.
And while the OHL might have forgotten about the North Bay, the people there never forgot about major junior hockey.
“Over the past 10 years, it’s been amazing how many people remembered (the Centennials),” said McDonald, who led the “Save the Cents” campaign in 2002. “I’d be stopped in the street and they’d say, ‘Al, do you think we’re going to get an OHL team back?' And I used to always say, ‘Never give up hope.’”
He never did.
Today, Al McDonald is the mayor of North Bay, and his quest to see the OHL return to the city of 54,000 is close to being realized.
“It’s unbelievable,” said McDonald on Tuesday afternoon. “The talk in the coffee shops, it’s all extremely popular … I would say it’s like Christmas morning. It’s a tremendous feeling.”
The Battalion announced their intention to move to North Bay late on Monday night. By Tuesday morning, McDonald said they had already sold 100 season tickets within two hours of their office opening.
“We haven’t even started our campaign yet,” he said.
The deal with the Battalion would call on the community to commit to 2,000 season tickets for a minimum three-year period with a deadline of Dec. 31. The OHL’s board of governors, who are meeting to discuss the plan on Nov. 19, would also need to give the move the green light.
“It’s not a slam dunk,” said McDonald. “But am I confident? Yes. We did it with the Centennials to sell 2,700, but the circumstances are different. One, we were trying to sell a team. Now we’re trying to bring a team in.”
In return, North Bay would get a 15-year commitment from the Battalion and owner Scott Abbott along with an interest-free loan to help pay for part of the $12 million needed to renovate the Memorial Gardens. Once completed, the Gardens would have a seating capacity of just over 4,200, not including standing room and private boxes.
Even with big-ticket items like luxury suites and video scoreboards, there’s still much to be said about the kind of community spirit generated in smaller junior hockey markets. In the OHL’s case, bigger didn’t necessarily make for the better market.
“It’s a great fan base,” said former Centennials coach Greg Bignell of North Bay. “All I remember was that you could into any little store or coffee shop and that was the talk – the Cents. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, it was all the Centennials. That’s usually what you get in a smaller market. The players were well-known and well-treated, so I’m really happy for the fans.”
News of the Battalion moving had been rumoured for years because of their consistent, lagging attendance. That Abbott kept the team for as long as he did at the Powerade Centre was the biggest surprise. There was (and still is) a general apathy towards junior hockey in Peel Region. Without radio, TV or a daily newspaper to help market the team, their fan base dwindled. Make no mistake though, the Battalion had a core group of die-hard fans that would rival any in the OHL. It’s just too bad there weren’t enough of them. If there’s anyone who understands what those few Battalion fans are going through now, it’s McDonald.
“We were devastated,” said McDonald of losing the Centennials. “We were heartbroken. We were really heartbroken.”
If there’s anyone the hardcore fans in Brampton should be blaming for the loss of their team, it’s the OHL. Its decision to place three franchises – Toronto, Mississauga and Brampton – in the untested junior market of the Greater Toronto Area two years apart from one another was doomed to fail. The Mississauga IceDogs franchise eventually relocated to the Niagara region and the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors took up residence at the Hershey Centre – only five kilometers down the road from the Battalion.
This summer, the Majors were bought by Elliott Kerr and renamed the Steelheads. If there’s one saving grace for OHL fans in the GTA, it’s that the Battalion move might help draw fans to Mississauga, which has had its own sordid attendance history. However, expecting fans to now cheer for their hated rivals might be wishful thinking for those just happy having junior hockey in the GTA.
It’s a lesson the people of North Bay have learned only too well having gone through that experience before. McDonald believes that people need to do more to support the things they care about in their communities: whether that’s an art project, a business, or even a hockey team.
“If we don’t make a conscious effort to get out and support them, we can’t expect them to be around forever,” he said. “I think that’s what we learned from that exercise with the Centennials.
“We just can’t take things for granted.”