In Mike Griffin’s view, the Brampton Battalion’s problems as a business entity started before the first puck was dropped in the inaugural season of 1998-99.
“If there was a time the Battalion was going to be successful off the ice, it would have been before the start of the first season,” said Griffin, who became club president early in the 1999-00 season.
“You’d get 1,500, 2,000 season tickets and the corporate support and go from there. They couldn’t sell half the boxes and never got to a thousand season tickets despite the money that was spent to promote and market the team. Right away you didn’t have the foundation and, when I looked to the future, the key was getting that foundation, and it never happened.”
The Battalion averaged 2,417 fans over 34 home dates in the first season and peaked at 2,734 in 2005-06.
The club, which will relocate to North Bay next season, is averaging more than 2,100 fans a game in its final campaign in Brampton.
“There was a core of probably 500 people, and the problem was you needed four times that many,” said
Griffin is a native of North Bay, which saw its previous OHL team, the Centennials, move to Saginaw, Mich., and renamed the Spirit for the 2002-03 season.
“When I came in, that horse was already out of the barn. The red flag probably should have gone up in Year 1 when they didn’t have the boxes full and you didn’t have all the season tickets you needed.”
Griffin said the Battalion had a number of successful off-ice initiatives including its Adopt-A-School program, the Tim Hortons national anthem program, between-period minigames, its fundraising efforts for Stephanie’s Place and Saves for Kids for the Brampton hospital, its relationship with the Rotary Club which raised more than $450,000 through gameday 50/50 draws and saw Battalion players distribute free dictionaries to grade-school pupils.
But Griffin felt the club’s group sales program was its top off-ice achievement.
“We built a group sales program because we had to. Without it you’d see 1,200 people a game here. That’s a credit to the people who built it: Darryl Bricknell, Jim Mallory, Amy Merrithew, Amanda Stavrou and Erin Meagher. They all did a great job on that.
“Over the years our players made hundreds of appearances at schools and that was also a benefit for the players as they gained confidence from speaking in public. As an organization we were fortunate to have players who wanted to participate in the community and some of the best of those were Brock McPherson, Ken Peroff, Sam Carrick, Cameron Wind, Zach Bell and Bryan Pitton.”
The Battalion’s Elementary School Hockey Tournament, the brainchild of front-office member Phil Ercolani, was also popular.
“That was Phil’s creation,” said Griffin, “and he put a lot of time and effort into making the event a success every year since it started in 2006.”
Griffin said Battalion owner Scott Abbott could have opted out of the Powerade Centre lease after the 10th season in 2007-08.
“Scott didn’t walk away, and he could have done that after the 10th season and made it a legal issue in terms of breaking the lease. I give him credit for not doing that.
“As the guy on the front end of the business side, I was saying that Brampton cannot work, that we had tried everything. We had the Ivey School of Business come in and analyze our plan and business model and tell us we had done everything we could do.
“There came a time when I told Scott that the Brampton market was not going to change. I did an evaluation of different markets, and over the course of the last three or four years I gave Scott the pros and cons of each market. It kept coming back that North Bay would be the one because I had the personal relationships and had a feel for it.
“What I had to do was address the negatives, because every market had one or two or three or 10. The facility was a key one to deal with, and we had to come up with a plan. I worked with the city and told them what we needed to do.”
The move to North Bay was announced in November, contingent on the community purchasing at least 2,000 season tickets for a minimum of three years. That number was achieved in six days, and the total now stands at more than 2,300. The relocation was approved in a unanimous vote of the Ontario Hockey League’s board of governors Nov. 19.
“When I told them the deal was contingent upon 2,000 season tickets, a lot of people thought we were pushing the envelope,” said Griffin. “But I had a sense that because of the history, going back to the campaign to save the Centennials, that it would work and we might as well find out. If we couldn’t get that base to a certain level, I would have told Scott we were wasting our time.”
Another item that needed to be addressed was a renovation of North Bay’s Memorial Gardens, a facility that dates to 1955. North Bay city council approved a $12-million renovation that will include a reconfigured ice surface, more seats, private boxes, a new dressing room and administrative offices for the Battalion, a video scoreboard and an HVAC system.
“On a daily basis we’re talking to the architect and the project manager,” said Griffin. “It’s a joint venture. I’ve seen the plans and the building schedule, and we’re very confident we’ll be in the building for training camp. We won’t play exhibition games there, because we want that buffer of time. The budget is key, but the people who are in the know are optimistic. We don’t want fans to notice if there are pieces of the puzzle that aren’t finished for the home opener.”
Griffin said the organization has to be ready when the doors open for the first time.
“I’ve had business people up there tell me we’ll sell out every game next season. I’m not that optimistic, but we are going to have significant crowds on a regular basis. We’re going to have to train people and, from a staffing standpoint, we’re going to have to make sure they’re ready for the first game, because there’ll be no freebies from the fans. The fans will expect things to be done properly. It’s just not a case of opening the doors and here they come. We have concessions to worry about and many other items.
“We’re going to need more staff. Our season ticketholders are the most important people for us up there right now. Then we need to reach out to people. We’re close to everything up there. We’ll be in all the schools and we’ll need to be very well organized.”
Griffin said the club is ready for the scrutiny that will come from being a leading entity in the community, which had more than 53,000 residents as of 2011.
“If we treat the fans and media with respect, they’ll respect us back. Are they going to voice their opinion if things aren’t going as well as we might want? Absolutely, but I don’t think it will be a vicious environment. If we put a good product on the ice and do what we have to do off the ice in the concourses, ticket office, merchandise areas and in the community, we’ll be fine.”
Griffin said he appreciated the loyalty of the Battalion’s longtime fans in Brampton.