In a series of major announcements made late Thursday afternoon, three prominent Canadian American League and Ontario League teams announced they were relocating – and when the game of musical chairs stopped, Belleville, Ont., lost its OHL team after 34 years.
The moves began with the AHL announcing the sale and relocation of the Montreal Canadiens' affiliate in Hamilton, Ont.; area businessman Michael Andlauer, who had secured majority ownership of the Bulldogs in 2004, sold the franchise to the Canadiens, who announced move the team at the end of the current season to St. John's, Newfoundland for the next two seasons. Meanwhile, the St. John's IceCaps team that currently plays in that city will be relocated to Winnipeg next season and serve as the AHL affiliate for the NHL's Jets. And the OHL's Belleville Bulls, who had been experiencing financial issues and were clamoring for a new arena for some time, were purchased by Andlauer and will play next season in Hamilton.
The Canadiens' bigger plan for its AHL team is to eventually situate it in Laval, Que., once a currently-under-construction, 10,000-seat arena opens in the fall of 2017. Jets owner Mark Chipman spoke publicly in January of 2014 of moving the franchise's AHL team closer to home – mentioning Thunder Bay, Ont., as the organization's preference – but a new arena in that city has yet to materialize. And although it will be a logistical challenge for both the Jets and their AHL team to play out of the same building, team ownership will benefit from the drastically reduced costs of scouting and transporting players. The future of AHL hockey in St. John's wasn't secure for the long term prior to Thursday's announcement and still isn't in the wake of the news, but the AHL's landscape can change drastically in the next two years and civic leaders will have more time to seek out a more permanent solution.
Hockey fans in Hamilton – who not all that long ago were talking about paying deposits on NHL season tickets – likely won't be overly impressed with the lack of professional hockey in town now that the Bulldogs are on their way out. However, it could be worse – they could be the good people of Belleville, who won't have their junior hockey team (which won an OHL championship in 1998-99 and participated in two Memorial Cup tournaments) to cheer on for the first time since the city was awarded an expansion franchise in February of 1981.