In the 1999-00 season, the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors of the Ontario League played a select few games in Maple Leaf Gardens. I remember making the hour-plus journey with my dad and brothers into the city to catch one of those games. It was a chance to watch live action in the hallowed grounds, after all.
But what struck me then and boggles me now is how empty it was. Here we were, in downtown Toronto, at the city’s most iconic building, to catch a hockey game on the cheap, and the city didn’t care enough to drop in.
News that the Brampton Battalion is applying for relocation to North Bay is a damning indictment of the status of Toronto as a hockey town. Sure, the area is Maple Leaf crazy and could easily support at least another NHL franchise, but that only defines it as a big-league city.
The Majors were launched as an OHL franchise in 1996, with Brampton and Don Cherry’s Mississauga IceDogs following two years later. It was a quick and calculated expansion into the long incandescent arms of the GTA. For a small-market league, this kind of big-market reach should have been a shoo-in for success. Yet only 16 years after the arrival of St. Mike’s, all three have moved and only Mississauga (having relocated from St. Mike’s) remains – and on unsure footing.
Toronto still has the American League Marlies, but they have rarely been in the league’s top half in attendance numbers and only saw a spike last spring when the team advanced to the final. The effect of that playoff run lingers, but even as the NHL locks out the Maple Leafs, the Marlies are 10th in attendance through four home games, well behind another big NHL market in Chicago.
To be sure, this is a big win for North Bay and even the Sudbury Wolves, who will be happy to see a team within roughly two hours back on the schedule. ‘The Bay’ will have the opportunity to prove doubters it can support a team through thick and thin. The Centennials had strong showings in their early years under legendary coach Bert Templeton, but when success waned, so did attendance at the aged Memorial Arena. Relocation to Saginaw was inevitable.
The excitement of a returning major junior team and renovations to the rink should provide enough buzz to meet the season-ticket threshold (2,000) to make the move official. North Bay’s viability as a major junior market will be judged after those first three honeymoon years are over - or the first losing season occurs.
As for Toronto? It should be a sad day for hockey fans in Ontario’s capital who want to exclaim their home as Canada’s most immersed puck town.
The fact is, Toronto is a big-league town and these recent events around its minor teams in the junior circuit prove that beyond a doubt.
The fact is, most won’t even notice the Battalion are gone.
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web editor. His column appears regularly only on THN.com.
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