Senators ready for opportunity to build Belleville’s AHL franchise

Ottawa owner Eugene Melnyk bought the AHL Senators franchise in September 2016 to bring it to Belleville. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

The Calder Cup has been handed out, the Grand Rapids Griffins have skated away with the sterling silver trophy for the second time in the past five seasons, and the 81st American Hockey League campaign has come to a close.

But the business of hockey never stops, the focus is already on another season that starts in fewer than four months. This new season will bring a flood of new top prospects into the NHL’s top developmental league.

It will also bring in three new teams.

The Laval Rocket will take over as the AHL affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens, a set-up that will provide the Habs with access to their top prospects just a short drive away.

Out are the Binghamton Senators, and in are the Binghamton Devils. New Jersey Devils management has relocated the Albany Devils to Binghamton, a long-time New York State AHL stronghold.

And finally there will be the Belleville Senators. The end of the Binghamton Senators’ 15-season run means that the Ottawa Senators will have a new AHL home as well. Belleville housed the Ontario Hockey League for 34 seasons but has gone without high-level hockey for the past two seasons.

That changes next season as Ottawa will have its AHL affiliate two and a half hours away in Belleville. It will be Ottawa’s first AHL affiliate based in Canada since 1996.

An $18.5 million renovation to Yardmen Arena, the long-time home of the OHL’s Bulls, is well underway. Along with reducing the building’s ice surface from international size to the North American standard, the improvements will also add high-end seating, luxury suites, new concession areas, and new dressing rooms.

A number of milestones have come and gone with more to come. The AHL Senators held an open practice in Belleville back in February. The team has made a number of additions to its front office. The logo, jersey, and game schedule will follow.

Guiding the show in Belleville will be Rob Mullowney, the new chief operating officer for the AHL team. Ottawa owner Eugene Melnyk bought the franchise in September 2016 to bring it to Belleville.

Mullowney brings plenty of experience to the city on the Bay of Quinte. He departed the St. John’s IceCaps midway through the season for Belleville and has 12 years of experience with the AHL affiliates of the Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Winnipeg Jets. While in St. John’s he helped make the IceCaps a strong financial operation, and the team won several league business awards in a number of categories.

His work earned him recognition from his AHL peers. The league named him the winner of the Ken Mackenzie Award as its top marketing executive in 2013, and the IceCaps won the President’s Award as the AHL’s top team in overall franchise operations in 2014.

Outside of the AHL, his resume includes experience with the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing along with sponsorship and marketing work for the 2010 Games in Vancouver.

Now he is in Belleville.

“I think the part that attracted was the opportunity to build a team from scratch again,” Mullowney said. “It’s a real challenge. Ultimately it’s about doing it right.”

In a traditional OHL centre, building familiarity with the AHL is another task for Mullowney and his staff. Building awareness of the top developmental league in the world, one in which players might be in Belleville one night and skating on Hockey Night in Canada the following evening is an area of focus.

“The AHL is a different level of hockey. It’s run differently,” said Mullowney. “The player [movement], that’s very different from junior hockey. We’ll have some challenges there, to be honest, but I think that’s one of the things that we have to focus on, really educating the market on that.”

In 2011 in St. John’s, Mullowney had four months to bring the IceCaps to life. After the NHL returned to Winnipeg, the Jets needed a new AHL affiliate. St. John’s offered a logical opportunity, but he only had a summer to set up an AHL team and a front office from the ground up.

Mullowney is taking the lessons he learned in St. John’s, but also has a much longer timeline to implement them in Belleville.

In St. John’s, Mullowney made it an emphasis to build brand awareness of the team throughout Newfoundland. He plans to take a similar approach with Belleville in the Bay of Quinte region, an area that is home to 200,000 people. The team has sold season ticket sets to fans in Kingston, an hour away.

“We want our team to be a very regional team,” he said. “I think that if we do that we have a much better chance to succeed.”

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Belleville will also be part of a Highway 401 rivalry with the Rocket and the Toronto Marlies, something that will be another area of marketing focus with Leafs and Habs fans scattered around the region.

While acknowledging the grip that the Leafs hold on Ontario, Mullowney also thinks there is room for the Ottawa fan base to spread. Belleville is in the Ottawa broadcast territory.

“I would say that [Ottawa] is building a brand beyond their core region,” he said. “Part of what [Belleville] is trying to do is build more fan affinity to [Ottawa].”

Back in St. John’s, Mullowney saw the ability of an AHL franchise to build a following for its NHL parent team, even one as geographically removed as the Jets were.

“I say this all the time. I never would have imagined I would see a kid in St. John’s walking around with a Winnipeg Jets sweater,” said Mullowney. “But that’s what happens when an AHL team comes into a region. Children and younger fans connect to a particular player, and they start to become fans of that (NHL) brand.”