There was a time when the small-market franchise was considered the lifeblood of junior hockey. In many cases they were the only game in town. It was a cheap night out and something many families could readily afford.
Teams were run more like mom-and-pop local stores. In the new OHL landscape, however, more and more franchises are being run like Supercentres in big, state-of-the-art arenas. For some it’s a big, profitable business. For the rest it’s a daily grind to stay in the black and still ice a competitive team.
No one knows this balance better than the Owen Sound Attack.
The Attack play in the OHL’s smallest market with roughly 22,000 residents -- though that number almost doubles when you factor in the neighbouring townships. Still, the 3,500-capacity J.D. McArthur Arena is regularly more than 80 per cent full. The team is competitive and won an OHL title in 2011.
“We have to do things smarter because we’re smaller,” says Attack president and part owner, Dr. Bob Severs. “That’s the challenge … there are several challenges, but the primary challenge is that when you make a decision you don’t have the luxury of being able to make a major error and walk away from that.
“The margin for error is very small.”
Recently the Sarnia Sting were put up for sale by the Ciccarelli family, who has owned the team since moving it from Newmarket, Ont., in 1994. The team is losing too much money -- some $1.4 million in the last four years. The team is also losing on the ice. Sarnia hasn’t advanced to the second round since 2007-08 and are on the verge of missing the playoffs this season.
Fans are frustrated. Who wants to watch a chronic loser?
On Monday, Belleville Bulls owner Gord Simmonds told QNet News that he would consider moving his team unless the city pays to modernize the Yardmen Arena. The city has other more pressing issues at the moment, like upgrades to police and fire services.
Belleville has had an OHL franchise since 1981. The Bulls currently have the lowest attendance in the OHL, averaging 2,202 fans per game according to hockeyattendance.com. Like Sarnia, the Bulls are also struggling on the ice and are last in the entire league after going to the Eastern Conference final last year.
The London Knights, a perennial powerhouse, lead the league in attendance with crowds almost at capacity (9,100) at Budweiser Gardens. They’re hosting the Memorial Cup this year, the second time in 10 years, despite the fact other bidding teams have yet to host the tournament once.
Back in May, when London was awarded the tournament, London Free Press columnist Morris Dalla Costa wrote: "It will be viewed as the big-money, big-arena, big-city team getting what they want again."
Are we at the point where the business of junior hockey has become too big for smaller markets?
“I don’t think we should allow it to outgrow these markets,” says Severs. “Peterborough is a fabulous place to play hockey and Belleville is a fabulous place, too. These communities have long traditions of high-quality hockey.
“I think we have to guard against that. If we get to the point where you have to have 10,000 seats in order to break even and you have to have a business community that services 500,000 in order to get sponsorship in order to support a team, then that will be the death knell for junior hockey because there aren’t many of those places around – you’re going to have a three-team league.”
But big markets aren't always better, either. Back in the late 1990s the OHL decided on expanding in the Greater Toronto Area by allowing the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors to join the league in 1997. The next year they were followed by both the Mississauga IceDogs and Brampton Battalion.
Expansion in the GTA failed miserably.
The Brampton and Mississauga franchises were situated some five kilometers away from one another, splitting what might have been one successful Peel fan base. There were too many other outlets fighting for the same entertainment dollars. NHL fans were apathetic towards the junior game.
In order to clean up the mess, the Toronto franchise moved to Mississauga and the Mississauga franchise relocated in St. Catharines as the Niagara IceDogs. Last summer, the Brampton Battalion finally moved to North Bay after years of poor attendance. Only Mississauga – now the Steelheads – remain in the GTA.
How much longer they stay at the Hershey Centre is the question.
After 25 home games this year, the Steelheads are operating at 45 percent of their arena capacity averaging 2,454 fans. In 2012, Steelheads owner Elliott Kerr said he was committed to a three-year plan for the franchise after which plans would be reassessed.
Time for the Steelheads is moving faster than the turnstiles.
With at least one team for sale and two potentially to follow suit, the OHL will have to take a long, hard look at where it sees the future of the league.
“The exercise for the OHL and the CHL is to make sure that it doesn’t outgrow these (small markets) or I think it’s over,” says Severs. “What would the Western Hockey League be without Brandon and Swift Current? These are great places – they’re not big places – but they’ve got fabulous hockey programs.
“I think it would be a sad day for junior hockey if it gets to the point where there’s no Swift Current or Owen Sound or Rouyn-Noranda and places like that, that can’t have junior hockey.”