Off the Bench

City part of OHL chatter

By Brian Smiley, Brantford Expositor

After an absence of more than three decades, is the Ontario Hockey League on its way back to Brantford?

If so, which franchise is about to land in the city?

And is Brantford and its surrounding area ready to support major junior hockey?

Those kind of questions have been asked ever since the Brantford Alexanders were relocated to Hamilton as the Steelhawks following the 1983-84 season.

So, why is this column being written now?

According to well-placed sources who spoke off the record Tuesday, the possibility is there for an OHL return to Brantford.

There have been several times in the recent past that Brantford appeared close to regaining a spot in Ontario's premier junior hockey league but the city didn't make it past the final cut.

Several years ago, when the Ice Dogs were leaving Mississauga, word on the street was Brantford was in the running. But the franchise eventually landed in St. Catharines.

Last month, it was announced that the Belleville Bulls had found a new home in Hamilton for the 2015-16 season.

Whether Brantford had a shot at the Bulls is anyone's guess but the move by Belleville may have improved Brantford's chances for an OHL franchise.

Belleville's move to Hamilton may help sort out a situation involving the NHL's Edmonton Oilers, the OHL's Erie Otters and, perhaps, Brantford.

According to a story earlier this year in The Globe and Mail, Otters owner Sherry Bassin took a multi-million dollar loan several years ago from Oilers owner Daryl Katz. At some point, the loan was called in and, according to the Globe, when that occurred Bassin wanted to sell the Otters to Katz to pay off his debt.

There was some thought that Katz was trying to gain control of Erie so that he could move the Otters to Hamilton and take over the lease at FirstOntario Centre - formerly Copps Coliseum. But when Belleville relocated, that option was off the table for Katz.

So, with Bassin still on the hook to Katz for several million dollars, it appears that the Otters will be sold so the debt can be repaid. When that takes place, the team's future in Erie will come into question.

Even with this year's projected No. 1 NHL draft pick Connor McDavid in its lineup, Erie is averaging fewer than 5,000 fans a game. Prior to McDavid's arrival, the team was drawing substantially fewer fans - a reported 2,855 per game in 2011-12.

That attendance figure does not make Erie an attractive location for a new owner. OHL commissioner David Branch has stated publicly that the league thinks Erie is a good hockey market. But the new owners may not think so and may want to negotiate their way out of town.

In some corners, it's being rumoured that the sale of the team is imminent. And, with about five months until the start of next season, it won't take long to see if the franchise stays put or relocates.

And that's where Brantford comes in. If there were prospective owners sniffing around back when the Ice Dogs were for sale, there's little doubt that this time around Brantford is also on the radar.

The city's arena situation is not ideal for an OHL team - the main rink at the Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre seats more than 1,000 and the civic centre about 3,000. But, depending on the city's willingness to help a new owner and the new owner's willingness to spend some money, that could be remedied with a renovated or new facility. More than likely, any new facility would be multi-purpose, much like Budweiser Gardens in London.

Brantford's location is perfect for the OHL. There would be six other franchises within an hour of the city and several others within a couple of hours.

In talking to people on the street, there's a want and desire for an OHL franchise.

But is it realistic to hope for a move here by the Otters or any team? And why talk about it now?

Each of the sources contacted for this column were approached after whispers from a few people turned into constant chatter. Each source was able to add information that confirmed there is or has been some dialogue going on with regards to an OHL team coming to Brantford.

Now comes the tough part for local hockey fans, who have to sit and wait to see if all the talk turns into reality.



UPDATE: On Wednesday, April 8, the Erie Otters filed for bankruptcy.

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