Belleville's Adam Laishram (photo courtesy of Aaron Bell/OHL Images)
The Ontario League franchise will move to Hamilton this summer and in a game of team musical chairs involving two leagues, Belleville lost out. The rink was the problem, but who was responsible for the solution?
As much as we all like sports and the arenas they are played in, it has been pretty well established over the years that taxpayers shouldn't be on the hook for creating such buildings, at least at the professional level. if Los Angeles doesn't get an NFL team because a new stadium isn't built, the good citizens of that metropolis can simply go see baseball, basketball, hockey, college football or go to museums, art galleries, movie premieres, and so on.
But what about small towns like Belleville?
The Ontario community is home to about 50,000 people and until yesterday, a major junior hockey team. But the Bulls will be moving to Hamilton next year and for the first time in 35 years, there will be no OHL hockey in town.
Yardmen Arena was the biggest issue. The Bulls' antiquated facility was in need of a facelift and has been for years, but neither ownership nor the city was willing or able to pony up the cash. That hasn't helped attendance, which sits near the bottom of the OHL – and it's worth noting that last-place Plymouth is moving this summer as well, to Flint, Mich.
Carolina Hurricanes assistant GM and director of hockey operations Mike Vellucci has a unique perspective on the situation; he played for the early Bulls teams of the 1980s, then returned to coach against them for years up until last season with the Plymouth Whalers.
"It changed," he said. "It seemed like a bigger town, but you look at the rink and nothing changed."
Vellucci still keeps in touch with the two families that he billeted with as a young defenseman in Belleville and remembers the challenges of playing on Yardmen Arena's larger Olympic-sized ice.
"You had to coach differently and play differently," he said. "You have to be smarter and understand your gaps better, not play as aggressive."
It would be easy to say that major junior hockey is leaving small towns behind, but then you have North Bay (around the same population as Belleville) succeeding after departing Brampton, with a population of more than 500,000. Plus, next year's Memorial Cup will be hosted by Red Deer, which beat out Vancouver for the right to throw the CHL's biggest party. Vellucci cautioned about over-reading the situation and in the case of Plymouth, believes that owner Peter Karmanos should be thanked for keeping the team in Detroit for decades.
But there does seem to be more pressure on small markets. Is it fair that the good people of Belleville lost their team because they didn't want to pay (I say "they" because while elected officials ultimately decide the town budget, the people elected those officials) for a new arena, or at least for renovations?
Some would say that's the price of putting your town on the map, but it's a steep one. The Bulls were something the town could rally around, but clearly only some people really cared. In terms of ownership, it would be great if every major junior team had someone with deep pockets at the helm, but there are only so many of those folks out there that care to own a hockey team that may lose money more often than it makes it.
Michael Andlauer was willing to take on the Bulls and try his luck with OHL hockey in Hamilton and Steel City should be thankful for that. But from the sounds of it, Gord Simmonds had been trying to make it work in Belleville for a long time and it just wasn't getting done.
In a statement from the OHL, commissioner David Branch said “It is the OHL’s hope, as with other small cities in our league, that one day, with the right conditions, OHL hockey will return to Belleville.”
It's too bad that a city had to lose its team in this game of franchise musical chairs and maybe Belleville will get another team in the future. But with major junior becoming more of a professional show with each passing year, it's hard to see that happening without a new arena – and another chance.