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Behind the Scenes if the OHL: Facility Renewal

It seems this is the season of facility renewal within the OHL.
With teams like the Owen Sound Attack and the Niagara Ice Dogs barely able to squeeze in 3000 fans into their buildings, teams such as the London Knights can regularly fill 9000 seats. However, there are changes going on throughout the OHL to upgrade arenas to not only compete on the ice, but also to compete financially. The Erie Otters revamped their line up this year with the arrival of rookie phenom Connor McDavid but they also managed to upgrade their facilities with the completion of a $42 million renovation.
The Ottawa 67s took a risk this year by moving their team to Kanata, relocating to the Scotiabank Place where the Senators of the NHL play. The timing couldn’t be any better for the 67s as their arrival coincided with the NHL lockout and they don’t need to share the facilities or the fans with the pro team. While there was some concern they might lose their fan base during the two year renovation process, the reward will be a return to an updated modern Ottawa Civic Centre.

The first home game for the Kitchener Rangers was pushed back until October 19th. After starting the season with eight away games, the Rangers were able to return to a newly refurbished Memorial Auditorium after $10 million has been spent to provide a third-level concourse, a fourth-level media room and loft style suites, renovated team space, including dressing rooms, player services and retail areas. The expansion added almost 1,000 seats to the Aud’s seating capacity which means there will be a reduction to the current season ticket wait list of 1,300 names.

Six years ago when the Burke family purchased the Mississauga Ice Dogs and relocated the team to St. Catharines, it was with the understanding a new arena would be built within five years. The decision to build a new arena was a contentious issue for the City of St. Catharines, many citizens expressing concern the current economic climate was not ideal for the city to be spending $45 million on what some detractors are calling a puck palace. While the Niagara Ice Dogs have inked a deal to become the anchor tenant, the city is banking the new facility will also serve as a recreation and entertainment centre for all residents of St. Catharines. While they didn’t quite make the five year deadline, the shovel will hit the ground in a few weeks for the Ice Dogs to start the 2015 hockey season in a new modern facility.

The St. Catharines Standard reports Ice Dog owners Bill and Denise Burke have signed a 20-year lease with the city getting a percentage of gross ticket sales and a surcharge on every ticket sold. The city also keeps any cash from naming rights and parking, as well as an equitable share of profits from in-house ads, suites, club seats and concession sales.
Currently the Ice Dogs are regularly selling out in a very cramped Jack Gatecliff arena with a capacity of 3145. “If it’s a full house, it’s more revenue, obviously, for the city,” said Bill Burke. He called the 10% figure “a very fair number for a 20-year lease….I’d like to think that we could be 4,000, 4,500 every night.”
In the mean time the Niagara Ice Dogs will continue to play in the quaint old barn of the “Jack”, clearly the oldest arena in the Ontario Hockey League. While there is a limited source of revenue for the owners and a tight squeeze for the fans, the players have always enjoyed playing in the Jack where the roar of the fans inspire the home team and can intimidate opponents. The Ice Dogs also use the smaller ice surface to their advantage.
With Niagara fans excited their new arena will finally be built, it was the Brampton Battalion which made the news throughout the OHL this week. The Battalion has been unable to fill the Powerade Centre since their arrival in Brampton. In the final year of a 15 year lease, team owner Scott Abbot made the decision to pull the team out of Brampton and make a move to North Bay. Perhaps Abbott was inspired by the success of the Burkes moving a team to a smaller community which will spiritedly embrace an OHL team even if the facilities are in need of improvement.
The city of North Bay has already committed to a $12 million renovation which will  include expanding seating capacity to about 4,300, increasing the size of the ice surface to a more standard 200 by 85 feet, a large team dressing room/fitness area/administrative centre and new heating and cooling system. The city is wholeheartedly supporting this move as North Bay mayor Al McDonald reported to Yahoo Sport the team has “sold 100 season tickets within 2 hrs of their office opening & they haven't even started a ticket drive.”

Fan Kevin Jordan can claim he has been to all 20 OHL arenas and has created an on-line guide describing the individual personalities of each facility.
A brief outline of each arena is posted below (if the facts of Wickipedia can be trusted)
Barrie Colts: Molson Centre built in 1995 for $13 million with a capacity of 4195.
Belleville Bulls: Yardmen Arena built in 1978 with a capacity of 3257. It has the largest ice surface in the OHL (200 ft x 100 ft)
Brampton Battalion: Powerade Centre built in 1998 for $26.5 million with a capacity of 4800
Kingston Frontenacs: KROCK Centre built in 2008 for $46.5 million with a capacity of 5700.
Mississauga Steelheads: Hershey Centre built in 1998 for $22 million with a capacity of 5800.
Niagara Ice Dogs: Gatorade Garden City Complex, formerly The Jack Gatecliff Arena (the Jack) built in 1938 for $105,000 with a capacity of 3145 including standing room. (By far the oldest in the OHL and the smallest ice surface at 190 ft x 80 ft)
Oshawa Generals: GM Centre built in 2006 for $45 million with a capacity of 6107.
Ottawa 67s: Ottawa Civic Centre built in 1967 for $9.5 million with a current capacity of 9862 (currently under renovation with the 67s playing out of the Scotiabank centre until the 2 year renovation is completed)
Peterborough Petes: Memorial Centre built in 1956, renovated in 2003 with a capacity of 4329.
Sudbury Wolves: Community Arena built in 1951, renovated in 2007 with a capacity of 5100.
Erie Otters: Erie Insurance Centre built in 1983 for $9.3 million with a $42 million renovation almost complete. Capacity is 6500.
Guelph Storm: Sleeman Centre built in 2000 for $21 million with a capacity of 4195.
Kitchener Rangers: Memorial Auditorium built in 1951 with a capacity of 7800. With current renovations complete the capacity is close to 9000.
London Knights: Budweiser Gardens (formerly John Labatt Centre) built in 2002 for $52 million with a capacity of 9100.
Owen Sound Attack: Harry Lumley Bayshore Community Centre/JD McArthur Arena built in 1983 with a capacity of 3500.
Plymouth Whalers: Compuware Arena built in 1996 with a capacity of 4500.
Sarnia Sting: RBC Centre built in 1998 for $15 million with a capacity of 5500.
Saginaw Spirit: Dow Event Center built in 2006 fro $25 million with a capacity of 5527.
Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds: Essar Centre built in 2006 for $25 million with a capacity of 5000.
Windsor Spitfires: WFCU Centre built in 2008 for $71 milllion with a capacity of 6500.
A crowd shot from "the Jack" back in 1938.

The Niagara Ice Dogs is a Family Business

With the announcement back in the summer of 2007 the Mississauga Ice Dogs had been sold and new owners were relocating the team to the Niagara area, Niagara hockey fans were excited about the opportunity to see OHL caliber hockey, as well as future NHL stars mature right here in Niagara. What most fans didn’t realize at the time was the move not only meant a relocation of a hockey team but also relocation of a family.

Team owners Bill and Denise Burke, having recently sold their Aurora based family printing business, decided to make a major leap and purchase a Major Junior A hockey franchise. The younger generation, sons Billy Jr. and Joey, dug right into the family business as well.

Joey has been the assistant general manger full-time for the past two seasons. He lists off wide ranging duties which fill his day. For example, iIn preparation for last month’s training camp he contacted draft picks, set up itineraries, ensured player eligibility, secured visas for European players, league registrations, and U.S. health insurance.  Joey is even the go to guy when someone needs picking up at the airport. Joey sums his role up by saying his primary job is to do the entire behind the scenes stuff so head coach and GM Marty Williamson can concentrate on the hockey stuff.

His older brother Billy Jr. has the role of assistant coach. As an OHL alumnus, Billy has a good idea of what pressures the young hockey players are under. Not just parental and coaching pressures, but the pressure the athlete puts upon himself. He acknowledges the OHL is a 12 month commitment; there is no taking the summers off for the athlete. If a player chooses to slack off during the summer there will be another player who kept training and is ready to take his spot.

I asked Billy and Joey if the poor facilities at the Jack Gatecliff arena was a deterrent in recruiting players to Niagara, and they both insisted the “Jack” was actually a major attraction. They credit their parents with ensuring the dressing room and other necessities are available for the team but they feel it is the fans suffering with poor spectator accommodation. Billy believes Niagara fans are the main attraction for getting players to come to Niagara. Bringing a draft pick to a play-off game to see the fans in action seals the deal. Billy acknowledges “the fans in this region are as knowledgeable as any fans in the league.”

The brothers are excited about this year’s team. Like last year when the Ice Dogs had to juggle line-ups with four players away with various Team Canada duties, the line-up this year may need to be juggled again depending on the length of the NHL lock-out. It is expected Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Strome will end up with their respective NHL teams. 

Billy Jr. admits expectations this season are perhaps not as high as last season’s Eastern Conference Championship team. “I would love to be back in the finals, I don’t think that will happen this year. Each player has to over achieve. Missing the play-offs is unacceptable. Anything can happen. If the guys all buy in and the stars all align, who knows? We are optimist for the season. We kept all of the young players like Carter Verhaeghe and Broderick Kelly, the young guys who will become the future of this team. It has set us up for success in the future… (They will) build confidence, have room to make mistakes, less pressure because we don’t have to win every game. We will regroup. By the time the new rink comes along (in two years) we will be knocking at the door again.”

Joey thinks the Ice Dogs will finish in the top half of the conference and go on a run. “Maybe going  a couple rounds deep in the play-offs, keeping it exciting for the fans and maybe surprise a few people by winning a trophy……I think we are young but we are also very talented. We are still going to have a good team, if we stay healthy and (have)  a little bit of luck.”

However the Ice Dogs do this season, both Burke brothers acknowledge they work hard for the fans, for the community.  Billy says “This is more than a job for us. This is our whole life. Our life revolves around this team. I love it here; this is an opportunity of a life time. We are all Ice Dogs.”

McDavid Makes His OHL Debut

Connor McDavid made his OHL debut on Thursday evening facing the Niagara Ice Dogs. Sixteen seconds into the game he was welcomed into the big leagues with a major hit from Boston Bruins draft pick Dougie Hamilton. It was a clear statement from the Ice Dogs they were not going to treat this fifteen year old with kid gloves but rather show him what to expect as he embarks his career in the OHL. Hamilton was on McDavid throughout most of the game and kept him off the score sheet. With a 4-2 loss to the Ice Dogs, McDavid admitted he was disappointed with the results. “(The game) definitely could have gone a bit better. It sucks to give up the two points. Losing is something that doesn’t sit very well with me.”

Landing at the bottom of the OHL standings last year the Erie Otters were able to select McDavid first over-all in the 2012 OHL priority draft. Many have asked McDavid if he must become the saviour of the Otters.  “I don’t feel too much pressure….I try not to focus on me, try to focus on the team game. There are 22 of us out there.”

McDavid believes he is ready to make the jump from midget hockey to the Major Junior “A” league. “I feel pretty comfortable out there, (but) it’s not fully there yet.” McDavid acknowledges he needs to continue improving the defensive side of the game as well as face-offs.
Following the Ice Dog loss the soft-spoken McDavid appeared shaken by the barrage of hits from the Team Canada alumni Hamilton. “It was certainly unexpected and I was not prepared. (Hamilton) might be the best player in the entire league. It’s good to get that under my belt.”

For a young teen, McDavid has been under a number of changes in the last few weeks; a new hockey club, first time away from home, living with a billet family, a new school, not only a new city but a new country. It is understandable if there is an adjustment period for this hockey phenom.

With his second outing in the league, McDavid was able to score his first OHL points with a goal and an assist against last year’s OHL champions the London Knights. While a milestone for McDavid, it was another team loss as the Knights outscored the Otters 8-2. All eyes will continue to be on McDavid throughout the season.

On-Ice Product Shored Up; 67's Need New Marketing Ploy

by Alex Quevillon
In a two-day span, fans of the Ottawa 67's suffering from withdrawal in the off-season received news worth getting excited over. With that being said, while all is well with the on-ice product, the most recent announcement causes a lot of off-ice concerns for the hockey club.

Early Wednesday, the Barberpoles headed into the CHL's import draft and did exactly what they were expected to do -- shore up their wingers. With the 51st selection, Ottawa selected diminutive left winger Ladislav Zikmund, who plays in the same system in Karlovy Vary as ex-67 netminder Lukas Mensator. Their second pick, at 54, was used to draft an ex-teammate of Michal Cajkovsky, 6'2 right winger Richard Mraz (not to be confused with Petr Mrazek, who joins Cajkovsky as a 67 grad).

All seems set in motion for the 67's to have a strong rebuilding campaign on the ice. However, less than 24-hours later, the Ontario Hockey League released their schedule for the 2012-13 season. Exciting news? Yes. A cause for concern in Ottawa? Absolutely.

As was confirmed three weeks ago when the 67's officially moved their headquarters to Kanata, Ontario, the team will officially play out the next two or three seasons at Scotiabank Place. Their new so-to-speak roommate, the NHL's Ottawa Senators, released a schedule around the same time that left Ottawa's Junior team in a bind.

Typically, the 67's have had the entirety of their home matchups scheduled for Friday nights and Sunday afternoons with the rare exception being made for a Saturday afternoon or Holiday Monday game. Sharing a building with an NHL team has effectively put an end to this, though. The Senators, competing with six other Canadian NHL markets, have started their own habit of hosting teams on Friday nights. As such, with the pro team taking precedence, the 67's had to work with what they were given.

As we found out, the 67's home schedule sees them playing just eight home games on their usual Friday nights. They play host to four Saturday afternoon games and seven Sunday afternoon games. During the week, fans will have to make the trek out to Kanata for three Monday games, four Tuesday games, five Wednesday games and three Thursday games.

To get fans to the games, the team is going to be forced to market Junior hockey better than they have in the past half-decade. If anyone can do it, team owner Jeff Hunt has proven that he is capable.

After taking over the franchise in 1998, Hunt's bold marketing tactics and advertising campaigns didn't go unnoticed. In fact, it helped sell so many tickets that the 67's were able to host the Memorial Cup, as their new owner had audaciously guaranteed.

From 1999 to 2005, the 67's took part in three third Memorial Cup tournaments and attendances were soaring. Every Friday night game was either sold out or nearly sold out, the team rarely plunged below 8,000 fans for a Friday night. Sundays never seemed like a chore to put people in the seats. But since their last visit to the Mem Cup, things have taken a bit of a nosedive.

With the exception of games against key teams, teams with high-end prospects, or simply games where a lot of seats were given away, Ottawa rarely found themselves eclipsing 6,000 fans. This isn't a bad hockey team, either, this is a team that hasn't missed the playoffs since the birth of their first import draftee from Wednesday and has won three divisional titles in a row. Imagine if this team falls into the lower echelon of the Eastern Conference.

Furthermore, consider the poor attendances that generally come with playoff games in Ottawa. Not used to weekday games, they only managed to sell 6,500 tickets for the deciding seventh game vs. Barrie. That was Ottawa's highest attendance for a weekday home game in the post-season. Are those numbers good in comparison to a number of OHL teams? They are, but it causes concern for what we may see next season.

If travel and the number of weekday games aren't enough of a worry, consider that the Senators are also re-vamping their marketing schemes and, in some cases, are actually selling tickets that would be cheaper than their Junior counterpart. Senators CEO Cyril Leeder is tired of visiting fans taking over 'The Bank', and is willing to lose profits to sell cheaper season's seats to Ottawa fans who will drown out opposing supporters. How far is Leeder willing to budge in order to sell his team's product to hometown fans? Down to the point where you can buy seats for $15.

Granted, very few tickets for the professional squad will be sold at the eye-opening low rate of $15, but there will still be some available to the public. By comparison, the cheapest ticket you can buy for a 67's game currently goes at $18.

If you don't think that the Senators brass is serious about their plan, consider personal experience as proof. In my family's household, there is not a single Senators fan. However, having used Capital Tickets (owned by Senators owner Eugene Melnyk) we received a letter asking if we'd like to become Senators season ticket holders, the offer of "tickets as low as $15/game" still intact. These same afformentioned family member who have been 67's season ticket holders for decades received nothing more than a long, drawn-out "please come back, we need you next season" from the Barberpoles front office.

Unable to obtain official numbers, I have heard from a number of people that the 67's renewal rate amongst season ticket holders from the 2012 season had dropped to as low as 23% as of the May 8th Early Bird deadline. Playing in a suburb, it will be hard enough to get any sort of a walk-up or casual crowd. When an approximated 77% of diehard fans aren't willing to make the trip, who is?

Furthermore, OC Transpo has now come out and said that unless the 67's sell an average of 5,000 seats per game, they will cut bus service to the games. With the price of parking already hiked up from last year's rate, bus service is crucial. It's a chain reaction if the team doesn't draw large attendances early on. If they lose bus service, it goes even further downhill.

For a team that couldn't sell 5,000 tickets for a weekday playoff game, the Ottawa 67's are going to have to come up with a brilliant marketing ploy to continue getting respectable attendances. Perhaps this starts and ends by using Cody Ceci as a selling point -- the hometown defender was drafted 15th overall by the Senators last week and is expected by many to return to the Barberpoles and likely Captain the team. Either way, with the pre-season starting on September 7th and the 67's home opener in their new stomping grounds being played September 20th, the team's front office has a lot of work to do in a very short time.

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