Joyce on CHL: North Bay in for a war

November 8, 2012, 8:06 PM

A couple of years back I asked Eric Staal who scored the last two goals in the last OHL game played in North Bay. He was stumped.

The answer: Eric Staal.

That’s not to say that North Bay’s history in major junior is entirely forgettable, just that by 2002 the Centennials had ceased to matter very much.

All this came to mind this week when news rolled out that the Brampton Battalion were disbanding and the franchise was heading to North Bay for the 2013-14 season, pending league approval, which should be a slam dunk, and advance season-ticket sales hitting targets, which might be a little shakier.

Battalion owner Scott Abbott made his fortune with Trivial Pursuit and ploughed millions into the franchise over the years but crowds were reported at less than 2,000 most nights and by the looks of it might have often been under 1,000. He had to stanch the bleeding and North Bay emerged as a destination after the city decided that the Memorial Gardens could stand a renovation with the right attraction coming to town.

I remember being in the rink for that last game the Centennials played at the Memorial Gardens. The home team needed at least a point to get into a single-game playoff on the road in Kingston for the eighth-seed in the Eastern Conference. A win would have given them eighth outright and guaranteed at least two more games. Staal forced an overtime with a late goal and then scored three minutes into extra time. The air went out of the building as if a window had been knocked out of jet at 30,000 feet. The Gardens was depressurized. There was a foreboding sense that North Bay had seen the last of the team. And they were right.

I had been to a handful of games in North Bay over the years and the franchise never recovered from the loss of Bert Templeton, a legendary hard-ass coach, who walked away from the club in a salary dispute a few years before. That was when the franchise started to go south on the ice which set the stage for it to go south to Saginaw when the ledgers didn’t make any sense.

Maybe the fortunes of the Battalion team that moves to North Bay will change.

It’s a big maybe.

The struggles that the team faced in Brampton resemble those it might face in North Bay.

Before the angry letters roll in, let me say that this isn’t a slight to the fans in North Bay. There is a greater fan base for junior hockey there than in Brampton. But when I speak of struggles, I speak first of struggles on the ice.

The Battalion has been a team like others in the OHL’s second tier in that it was never regarded as a destination for top talent. Kitchener, London and Windsor are the preferred landing spots for the best players and almost everywhere else is a fallback. Brampton was well down the list, not the worst but a long way from the elite. This is not to slight coach Stan Butler, who has always done a good job developing the players he could persuade to play in Brampton and whose work has been recognized by the folks at Hockey Canada. I’m simply saying that, given their druthers, the best players would want to play in a more exciting environment and with a team that has a better shot at a championship.

The Battalion looked like they might have been making a breakthrough a few years back when they won the Eastern Conference with a team that featured Cody Hodgson and Matt Duchene among others. And that team gave eventual Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires a pretty competitive series in the final … at least until a couple of bad goals undid them in front of a rare packed house in Brampton.

The next season Duchene was gone, Hodgson missed most of campaign with an injury, older players graduated and the Battalion returned to their normal position, having to scramble to try to get into the playoffs.

If the Battalion couldn’t make Brampton, with its proximity to the GTA, a destination for top talent, then does North Bay have a hope? I suspect the team will be like Sudbury or the Soo or Owen Sound: no top player’s top choice and thus all the stars have to line up to reach a conference final or better. It happens every once and a while.

In North Bay, the Centennials weren’t competitive enough to draw fans into an outdated rink. I’m sure there will be a honeymoon period next season when the team will draw a few capacity crowds, just giving fans a chance to celebrate. Over the long term, though, I worry that crowds there will look better than Brampton’s but not enough to turn the franchise around.

The team in North Bay might win the battle but lose the war.

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