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North Bay returning to OHL as Battalion make deal to move

The Brampton Battalion have a tentativea agreement to move to North Bay (OHL Images)

Well, that was quick. Fewer than two weeks after rumours of the Brampton Battalion moving intensified, city officials in North Bay, Ont., announced the attendance-starved Battalion have a tentative agreement in place to relocate for next season.

Given the stagnancy of the attendance for the team we'll informally call the Zombie Battalion, it's no shock at all that owner Scott Abbott and president Mike Griffin were so aggressive about exploring a move to a city where the major junior team was the only game in town. The North Bay Centennials' heyday in the 1980s and '90s is enough of a track record. The city's plan to finance $12-million in upgrades to the Memorial Gardens also addresses concerns about playing in a facility that isn't up to league standards. That could help with convincing the league's board of governors to approve the move, once a season-ticket drive has been completed. North Bay, of course, lost its Centennials to Saginaw, Mich., in 2002.

From the city's release:

A 15-year lease agreement with the Battalion is contingent upon a community campaign achieving 2,000 season tickets for a minimum three-year period and subject to approval by the OHL board of governors.

"On behalf of the citizens of the City of North Bay and members of Council, I extend our thanks to Battalion owner Scott Abbott for his commitment to relocate the team to our community," said Mayor Al McDonald. "He's considered by many to be the most passionate owner in all of hockey, and I have assured him that fans in North Bay will embrace the return of the OHL to a place it belongs.

"As importantly, our partnership with the Battalion enables us to transform Memorial Gardens into a facility that not only meets the standards for OHL hockey but allows us to attract various other events that in the past we weren't able to bring to North Bay."

The Battalion, which started play in the OHL in 1998-99, will complete a 15-year lease agreement with Brampton's Powerade Centre after the end of the current season. The club will seek approval from the OHL's board of governors to relocate contingent on success of the North Bay season ticket campaign.

"I'm pleased that we've reached an agreement-in-principle and look forward to the support of hockey fans in North Bay," Abbott said from Caledon, Ont. "The city has a rich hockey history, and we hope to add to it. There's a longstanding association with the military in the community, and it will be a goal of ours to build a Memorial Cup championship team at Memorial Gardens." (City of North Bay release)

It's a sad day, but the Battalion have had 15 seasons to get wider traction beyond their core seasons and it has not happened. One feels for the Brampton loyalists because switching allegiances to the nearby Mississauga Steelheads will not be automatic.

It's early yet and there will be a lot of questions. As was the case with the Atlanta Thrashers-cum-Winnipeg Jets, there's already a groundswell to rechristen the team as the North Bay Centennials. Abbott's reference to "a longstanding association with the military" might be a tipoff the intention is to keep the Battalion name and colours; "North Bay Battalion" is not without a certain ring.

The other question is whether the franchise's first and only coach, Stan Butler, makes the team north. Butler, who was hired in 1997 a full year before the Battalion joined the league as an expansion franchise, is not signed for next season. This might provide the timing for a clean break.

The move, once it is approved, will mean all three of the new teams the OHL placed in the GTA in the late 1990s will have relocated (Toronto to Mississauga, Mississauga to St. Catharines and now Brampton to North Bay). While one has empathy for the loyalists in Brampton, this has an epilogue-ish quality for overdone OHL-in-Toronto experiment.

Meantime, it is a great day for fans in Northern Ontario. The Sudbury Wolves should soon have their natural rival back.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at neatesager@yahoo.ca and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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