The Ontario Hockey League is poised to return to North Bay for the 2013-14 season, a rare second chance for a small-market city.
It won’t be the first time that the OHL has returned to a town that it had previously vacated.
The OHL has left and returned to Guelph and St. Catharines and had numerous failed flings with Hamilton and Niagara Falls.
But not only is North Bay’s population of 60,000 smaller than the others but its geographic location was seen as a big reason why the OHL was unlikely to return to the Gateway City.
To be sure, the chances of North Bay returning to the OHL as an expansion franchise were virtually non-existent. And when a North Bay group featuring ex-National Hockey Leaguer Moe Mantha Jr. tried to buy the Mississauga IceDogs a few years back the OHL instead opted to relocate to St. Catharines where the Niagara IceDogs were born.
But in a clear sign that the OHL’s 15-year experiment in Brampton has been an utter failure, Battalion owner Scott Abbott finally had enough and reached the recent agreement in principle to move his franchise to North Bay effective next season.
While downright giddy over its seemingly-imminent return to the OHL, North Bay surely must improve on its previous performance which ended in 2002 when the Centennials were sold and moved to Saginaw, Michigan where the Spirit was born.
Because while it’s fine and well that aging North Bay Memorial Gardens is being brought up to standard with millions of dollars in renovations, the Centennials were barely averaging 2,000 fans per game in their later seasons and those numbers in today’s high-priced, high-stakes OHL are probably not going to be good for the bottom line.
North Bay, though, did have some good days in the 20 years that the Centennials were part of the OHL.
Success was mostly with the legendary Bert Templeton at the helm as coach-general manager under the ownership of John C. Hopper. It was when Templeton was allowed to leave in 1994 that the Centennials went into a nosedive and the franchise was never really the same.
In fact, Templeton-coached teams had only three losing records in 12 seasons and won an OHL title under his watch. Six times in 12 years, Templeton-coached teams won 40 or more games.
It was after Templeton left that the Centennials ended their run in North Bay with just two winning seasons in eight, including three straight years when they won a paltry 15 games or less under the direction of the forgettable Shane Parker.
Coaching should not be a problem in North Bay’s scheduled return to the OHL with Stan Butler in charge. Butler will make the move from Brampton to North Bay as the only coach – and a winning one at that – in the 15-year history of the Battalion.
A downer in the return of the OHL to North Bay is the effect it could have on the Trappers of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
The Trappers could opt to relocate from North Bay after this season, one in which they were selected to play host to next spring’s Dudley Hewitt Cup, Central Canada junior playdowns.
Or perhaps the Trappers will remain in North Bay and move from Memorial Gardens to smaller West Ferris Arena, perhaps at a fraction of the rent they are paying now.
One would think the City of North Bay might owe the Trappers some consideration after both sides agreed to a three-year contract to play out of Memorial Gardens just this past spring.
Especially if the City was, at the same time, negotiating for the return of the OHL.
Will the Trappers stay in North Bay or will they pull up stakes and move on?
Time will answer that question.