Monday, November 10, 2008

Belleville's $12 million question

It won't draw much attention beyond the shores of the Bay of Quinte, but a public meeting goes today in Belleville that speaks to the future of big time hockey in small town Canada. There, local politicians and (likely) other assorted cranks will gather to discuss plans to renovate the Quinte Sports Centre .

Fixing up the old rink (it was built in 1978 and it was a great OHL 1980) was not a priority of the previous city council. However, new mayor Neil Ellis (who leads a council that includes Bulls play-by-play man Jack Miller) has been more open to the idea. That openness has led to today, when the public gets its first look at proposed plans to improve the rink.

The two biggest needs have been identified as getting more seats into the building for the Bulls and for making the facility appropriate for more types of uses. The city has budgeted $12 million to the project.

Despite incredible on-ice success over the past decade, recent years have been nervous ones for Bulls fans. When local ownership sold the team to Whitby's Uxbridge's Gord Simmonds, everyone feared the worst--that he would pull up the trucks and ship the beloved team out of town (likely to some Upstate New York location). Although Simmonds has been good to his word of working with Belleville officials to find solutions to the arena issue, no Bulls fan will rest easy until there are 5,000 seats in the building and Sears catalog executives sitting in a private box at the game.

Winnipeg moving to Phoenix and Quebec to Denver gets more press, but the loss of a junior team could be harder on a community. The CHL is strongest in places like Peterborough, North Bay, Sudbury and Belleville. That it isn't in North Bay any more is a shame. So, although it's nice for London that it is making boatloads of coin in its mini-NHL rink, the pressure that facilities like the John Labatts Centre put on smaller centres can't be overstated. This isn't a great time to be spending $12 million on a hockey rink, but if Belleville values its OHL team it pretty much has to do it. Simmonds has been a patient man, but he is also a businessman. There will come a time when greener (and I do mean greener) pastures are impossible to resist.

And if that happens, the soul of the game in this country will take another hit.


sager said...

Yeppers ... David Branch would rather be trying to force the OHL down people's throats in Toronto than having it where it matters in towns of less than 100,000 people.

Dennis Prouse said...

$12 million strikes me as a pretty reasonable amount to renovate an existing arena. Now, if they were talking about building an entirely new Taj Mahal in this current climate, that might be a different discussion, but $12 million isn't a lot of money in the grand scheme of things for a city budget. It is a capital expense, so you can amortize it over a long period of time.

I can't really see anywhere in upstate NY as a possible landing spot for an OHL team right now. Their economy is hurting worse than ours is, and has been for quite some time. Where would you put it? Rochester and Syracuse are already spoken for, and everywhere else is too small. Belleville is the ideal junior hockey market in so many ways - size, passionate fan base, location, etc.