The Brampton Battalion’s move to North Bay for the 2013-14 Ontario Hockey League season won’t mean added travel just for the team’s players, coaches and support staff.
It also will mean a lot more miles on the road for owner Scott Abbott, who has missed only five regular-season and playoff games over 15 seasons. Abbott, who has commuted from his Caledon home to Battalion road games and home dates at the Powerade Centre, plans to do the same when the club relocates to Northern Ontario.
“There’ll be more travel to home games, but travel to away games will be largely the same,” said Abbott, who hasn’t missed a Battalion game since a Nov. 21, 2003, road date against the Sudbury Wolves. “I take great pride in the team, and I want to see them play. I’ve been asked numerous times on trips to North Bay whether I’m moving there, and I tell them I’ll commute and see how it goes. We’ll see how the schedule plays out and go from there.”
Since the Battalion announced Nov. 5 that it planned to move, more than 2,300 season tickets have been sold. The city’s previous OHL team, the North Bay Centennials, moved to Michigan after the 2001-02 season, becoming the Saginaw Spirit.
“I’m very appreciative of the overwhelming support in North Bay,” said Abbott. “I won’t say I’m surprised by it, but I am buoyed and encouraged by it. When the Centennials were ready to leave in 2002, the real issue was not to find so many people to pledge to buy season tickets. The real issue was to find someone who would match the offer from Saginaw to buy the team and keep it in North Bay. The fans didn’t want to lose the team, and they’ve been pained over the loss ever since. I think there’s pent-up demand there for OHL hockey.
“I look forward to a situation there where the team is supported by a large, loud, raucous, hockey-focused crowd that gives us a home-ice advantage probably for the first time ever. “
The Battalion will join Sudbury, a Central Division rival, and the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds as Northern Ontario clubs. Abbott said he doesn’t expect the Troops to have difficulty convincing players from southern Ontario to report.
“It’s conventional wisdom in the OHL that teams like Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie have trouble getting those players. We’ve asked ourselves whether that’ll be the case. North Bay is the closest of the three Northern Ontario centres travel-wise.
“We’ve ascertained that the important thing for players is development, schooling and the amenities to which they have access. Development is looked after with head coach Stan Butler and his staff. The schooling, whether public, Catholic or French-language, is very well situated close to Memorial Gardens, and we’ll have a dressing room and other amenities superior to anything in the Powerade Centre. “
Abbott said he accepts the increased scrutiny that will accompany a move to a market such as North Bay.
“We’ll do the best job we can to give the fans the best possible team year in and year out. If they’re demanding, so be it. I come from Montreal, where it’s a bad season if the Canadiens don’t win the Stanley Cup. We know about expectations.
“We’re going to take a good team to North Bay. We have a lot of kids on this team getting quality minutes, and that will serve us in good stead next year.”
Abbott said the organization embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign in advance of its inaugural season in 1998-99. The Battalion drew a large, but not sellout, crowd to its first home game, a 5-1 loss to the Kitchener Rangers, and averaged 2,417 fans over its first campaign.
“We had good press, and we spent money advertising. We had a crowd of 4,477 for our first home opener, and it went precipitously downhill after that. I found out four or five games later that we were giving away free tickets and said that had to stop, and that never happened again. That opening-night crowd was an aberration and was largely papered, as I found out. We realized early on that this was a tougher slog than it should have been.”
Average attendance peaked in 2005-06 at 2,734. The club averaged 1,986 fans last year and has attracted somewhat fewer than 2,100 spectators a game this season.
“It’s a very difficult market. We’re under the dome of domination by the Toronto media. Toronto newspapers and radio and television stations don’t pay any attention to junior hockey. They don’t care, so there’s no market penetration, and that’s exacerbated in Brampton and Mississauga because there’s no daily newspaper. There’s no awareness despite all we’ve done in the way of advertising, promotions and appearances.
“The demographics here took a decidedly adverse turn almost simultaneously with us coming on board in 1998. All of the growth in population, which is substantial, is new Canadian, and that group is not ready to embrace hockey in any great numbers.
“Mississauga has all the same problems we have. I maintain you need to get outside the Toronto area to where there are local media that will treat you as the big thing in town. Then you can have a fighting chance.”
Abbott, who said the decision to move wasn’t easy, acknowledged that it was long under consideration.
“We had a 15-year lease, and I knew about halfway through that we would not be signing another one under anything near the same terms. Then it became apparent that we could get the building for nothing, including the dressing rooms and office space, and it still wouldn’t make sense because there isn’t interest in our level of hockey in this community. Those are the facts.”
Abbott was skeptical of a plan to put a Central Hockey League franchise in the Powerade Centre in the wake of the Battalion’s departure.
“I don’t think there are 25 people within 25 miles of the arena who would walk across the street to watch a CHL game. Good luck to them.”
Abbott said he appreciated the loyalty and spirit of the Battalion’s ardent fans.
“I love the fans in Brampton to the extent we have them. We had a hardcore group as good as any in the OHL. I thank them for the manner in which they’ve accepted the fact we’re leaving. It could have been nasty, asking us why we’re bolting and abandoning them. I’m sure they don’t want us to go, but they understand why we’re leaving and they’ve been very gracious about it. I appreciate that. It’s not like I was always looking to leave. I wish Brampton had been a roaring success on and off the ice, but that wasn’t in the cards.”