OHL approves sale, move of Plymouth Whalers to Flint

The Plymouth Whalers are moving to Flint (Aaron Bell, OHL Images).
The Plymouth Whalers are moving to Flint (Aaron Bell, OHL Images).

The Ontario Hockey League's 25-year run in the Metro Detroit area came to a close on Monday as the league's board of governors approved the sale of the Plymouth Whalers.

The team's new owner, Rolf Nilsen, who purchased the team from long-time owner Peter Karmanos, will move the team to Flint, Mich., for the 2015-16 season. The team will play out of Perani Arena, which OHL commissioner David Branch said will need some minor renovations to things like dressing rooms and board and glass systems in order to be suitable for major junior team.

Branch said the league was impressed by the amenities the city of just under 100,000 had to offer prospective players, though they'll be staying in the suburb of Grand Blanc, Mich.

"We're really excited because we understand first and foremost the responsibility we have for our players and their families to make sure that this is going to be a great place for them to grow and develop," said Branch on a conference call. "It's an exciting time for us and we're really looking forward to having Flint as part of our family."

Branch said officials from the league met with many in the community in and around Flint and were impressed by the city during a tour. Flint has made headlines in past as one of the most violent and dangerous cities in America. A recent story in the Flint Journal noted that 2015 was "the first time in decades" that Flint had not made the FBI's semi-annual crime report - primarily because the report is for cities with populations greater than 100,000 and Flint's has been on the decline.

"There was nothing that came at us that was cause for concern," said Branch of their time in Flint.

 A season ticket drive is scheduled to start this week along with a contest to name the new team.

"Our campaign will launch Wednesday morning," said Flint team president Costa Papista. "It's going to be a name the team campaign and a season ticket campaign combined."

Papista was also heavily involved in brokering the deal that moved the then-North Bay Centennials to Saginaw, Michigan in 2002. Craig Goslin, one of the co-owners of the Saginaw Spirit, is on the OHL's executive committee. He lauded the city and new team at Monday's press conference and spoke about renewing the rivalry between Saginaw and Flint.

According to Hockeydb.com the attendance in Saginaw has been on the decline since the 2010-11 season and this year they are averaging 3,223 fans at the Dow Event Center. The Plymouth Whalers (16-27-2-2) - the worst team in the Western Conference - are averaging far fewer with 2,372 and it was one of the biggest factors in the decision to sell the team.

Papista was asked what would be different about the market in Flint.

"In Flint we have our own media and I think that's really important to get fan support," he said. "I believe we're going to have a very similar response in Flint as we did in Saginaw when the franchise launched."

 The OHL also discussed the sale of the Sarnia Sting to former NHLer Derian Hatcher and Ottawa Senators forward David Legwand. Branch said the deal was not yet approved, though he said the league was hopeful to get it ratified "within the next week to 10 days."

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