When the Ontario Hockey League Memorial Cup selection committee made their announcement that Guelph would be the OHL city chosen to hold the tournament for junior hockey’s holy grail, the Memorial Cup, it breathed a billow of fresh air into what’s almost surely become just another trademark of the big business of hockey, junior or otherwise. In today’s hockey, money talks. With this announcement however, perhaps not all things are just about the greenbacks.
The OHL, unlike its CHL counterparts, the QMJHL and WHL, select their host city only four and a half months before the tournament, giving the top four teams in each conference the chance to submit a bid. This season only four of those top eight, Ottawa, Erie, P.A., Barrie and Guelph made the decision to apply. Now from all reports, all four cities presented stellar bids and would no doubt be great hosts with all icing competitive clubs vying for the championship. The actual cities making the bids and their adequacies in holding such an event were never questioned. Truth is, the system the OHL has to determine their host is superior if only for the fact that the host club is almost guaranteed to be as good as, or better than, the three champions from the respective leagues. There’s no selling the farm to bulk up on talent for the championship run and the decision is made after the trading deadline so it is a truer reflection of the team’s talent. The flip side may present some nightmarish challenges for the volunteers organizing the tournament but it is a fairer system nonetheless.
The process of choosing host cities is only part of the debate. It is the end result that has venerably renewed my faith or at least, quelled the fires of big-city envy. Guelph, population 96,000 (1998) isn’t exactly what you would call a small-market center in today’s CHL. It is almost in the middle of the pack when it comes to OHL market size. From Toronto and Ottawa at 2.3 million and 754,000, respectively, on down to Plymouth (24,000) and Owen Sound (22,000), not unlike its WHL and QMJHL cousins, the OHL has both its share of large market and small-town Canada that have Major Junior hockey teams that call them home. But surely you didn’t turn to the sports pages for a demographics lesson, although that and economics are more and more becoming an everyday part of sports, junior hockey being no exception.
The alarm bells of the big-city envy meter started to ring once it was clear that the Ottawa 67’s were going to be in the running, by way of their win-loss record at the thirty game deadline, to host the Memorial Cup – again. Ottawa was the gracious host the last time the tournament was in the OHL’s neck of woods in 1999. A great tournament both on and off the ice, in front of sellout crowds at the 10,174 -seat Civic Center, the local squad captured the cup in dramatic overtime fashions by edging the Calgary Hitmen. So by rights the ’67’s should’ve stepped aside and let other candidates bid to hold the tournament, right?
Not according to ’67’s owner Jeff Hunt.
You see Hunt had the right to bid under the selection format. With the ability to sellout the Civic Center and a guarantee of a reported $1.5 million to the OHL, Hunt thought the capital’s bid would be as good as any, if not a shoe-in. Luckily, if not for completely economical reasons, Ottawa did not receive the bid. This is significant not only for the fact that the ’67’s hosted the event three years earlier but also for the fact that the other three facilities in the other bids were all 5500 seats or less. The other bidders, Barrie, Guelph and Erie all have significant population bases ranging between 80,000 (Barrie) to 102,000 (Erie) but don’t have the big arenas to go along with it. That the committee did not give into the temptation of big-city money is surprising as it is refreshing. Guelph, with its new entertainment and sports center that seats 5026 plus luxury suites, guaranteed the OHL a reported $800,000 plus any profits. Barrie’s was a few hundred thousand less and Erie’s a few hundred thousand more.
What makes the site of Guelph more than just suitable host and a competitive hockey club is the fact of its size or rather, its facility’s size. The fact that the OHL selection committee shied away from breaking with the tradition of rotating the host cities and didn’t go after the bigger venue with the bigger return is a credit to its own foresight. With apologies to the trend that hockey in this country is a business, it is, but what should not be forgotten is that it’s also part of the Canadian culture and it’s that culture that makes it a business. Without one you wouldn’t have the other.
Perhaps the selection committee has been so bold as to start a trend. Not so much as to rely on the heart and do away with the head entirely but to encourage the CHL to take into account all benefits, monetary included, of each bidding city. More, if you will, than the required lip-service paid to smaller centers who take their shot to host the cup.
Foreshadowing the obvious, would a center such as the Kootenay’s ever be able to hold such an event? I’m not saying that you should go and buy your ticket package just yet but it nice to know that at least a facility such as ours, along with other hopefuls such as Prince George, Kelowna and Lethbridge might just get some consideration.
Although the trend toward expanding and focusing on the big cities in the CHL is in vogue, it’s rejuvenating to know that they still realize that the small center has something to contribute.