Hamilton Bulldogs’ move to Brantford gets green light

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Published February 7, 2023 at 8:28 pm

Woof, there they go — although hockey fans in Hamilton will get a little longer to process the Bulldogs leaving town than Belleville did with the Bulls eight years ago.

City council in Brantford voted 11-0 tonight in favour of the three-year agreement that will allow the OHL team to settle in that city’s civic centre until at least 2026 after being bumped out of Hamilton by arena renovations. Both the Brantford Bulldogs and the municipality will pour about $7.5 million into upgrades and renovations to the 56-year-old civic centre. It has an option for a three-year renewal if the Brantford Bulldogs, and president and principal investor Michael Andlauer, find playing out of a smaller community to their liking.

“We are so thankful for the enthusiastic and immediate response from (Brantford) Mayor (Kevin) Davis, Brantford council and city staff,” Bulldogs governor Michael Andlauer stated on Tuesday night. “Together, we have been able to make a home for the Bulldogs in a short and unexpected period of time.”

A website, bulldogsseasons.com, provided answers to questions prompted by the move. It noted the cost of season tickets “will increase… for the first time in many years” due to the Civic Centre’s smaller capacity. Priority access will be offered to subscribers who commit to all three seasons.

Andlauer learned last summer that the Hamilton Urban Precinct Entertainment Group (HUPEG) renovation of FirstOntario Centre would lead to its three sports tenants having to vamoose for two or more seasons. The plan to move to Brantford was announced last week. Typically, under OHL rules, teams have until Jan. 31 to inform the league if they intend to relocate.

Another response at bulldogsseasons.com left it open-ended about whether there are any plans for the team to return to Hamilton.

“There are many unknown variables regarding the current construction process that have left the organization in the dark, including the exact construction date and the completion date that need to be determined along with a new draft leasing agreement.”

It is actually the second time that a team in the OHL, a pro-format league for players 16 to 20 years old, has moved from Hamilton to Brantford. In 1978, the Hamilton Fincups became the Brantford Alexanders. Six seasons later, they moved again and became the Hamilton Steelhawks. The franchise later moved to Niagara Falls and is now the Erie Otters.

Brantford has been pining for a chance to prove itself an OHL-worthy city in recent years.

“I am very excited about bringing an OHL team to Brantford and thrilled that (its city council) has enthusiastically endorsed this partnership,” Brantford Mayor Kevin Davis said in the statement released by the Bulldogs. “Based on the community’s reaction to this news so far, I’m very confident that the Bulldogs fanbase will grow substantially in Brantford.”

Both HUPEG president P.J. Mercanti and partner Jasper Kujavsky have said in recent radio interviews that the OHL team would be welcome back at the arena. The other sports tenants were the Toronto Rock of the NLL (National Lacrosse League) and a team in the Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL). The latter is now the Brampton Honey Badgers after having won the 2022 CEBL title while repping Hamilton.

The Bulldogs also won the J. Ross Robertson Cup, the OHL title, in ’22. A crowd of 11,779, the largest to see an OHL final game in the modern history of the pro-format league, turned out last June 15 when Hamilton clinched the league crown. It was the team’s second league title in three full seasons. (COVID-19 health protections prevented the OHL from determining a champion in 2020 and ’21.)

Beyond the price tag of some $500 million in private investment, neither the timeline for starting and completing the HUPEG arena project nor the venue’s design is known to the public. The agreement with the City of Hamilton was completed in 2021.

Andlauer has been the principal investor in the American Hockey League (AHL) and OHL iterations of the Hamilton Bulldogs since the early 2000s. In 2015, the logistics magnate executed a franchise flip to bring the OHL back to Hamilton for the first time in a quarter-century. Andlauer sold the AHL franchise, which had been the affiliate of the Montréal Canadiens, in which he also owns a stake. On March 12, 2015, the OHL approved the transfer and relocation of the Bulls to Hamilton, ending their 34-season run in the southeastern Ontario city.

The team played in its last game as the Bulls on April 2, 2015, just 21 days later. Belleville has since renovated its arena and hosts the Belleville Senators, who are the Ottawa Senators’ AHL team.

The current Bulldogs, meantime, have 10 home games in Hamilton out of the 21 they have left in the regular season. Hamilton (.511 point pct.) is sixth in the Eastern Conference after turning over its lineup to retool at the trade deadline last month. Recent 17-year-old addition Nick Lardis of Oakville has been on a tear with 23 points in 13 games since his arrival from the Peterborough Petes last month.

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