The post-game show was brief, with hopes that this would not be our final AHL broadcast of the year. Hand shakes were even quicker between the great on-air crew I work with. A hustling hand shake to Norm Miller, my outstanding colour commentator. Host John Letherby, and his reverberating and distinctive bass closed the broadcast, and now we wait. The Hamilton Bulldogs sit in a precarious playoff spot and play 12 out of their last 16 games on the road, none of them on our normal Friday night broadcasting night. We figured it would be a tenuous three week awaiting the fate of the Bulldogs. The team had proven to be unbeatable at times, fashioning a 6 game winning streak to vault themselves into the post-season conversation. Other times they seemed all too mortal, as they were tonight losing 3-1 to a severely depleted Rochester Americans. Still it was a very unsteady 7th place occupied by a team that had not sniffed a playoff berth in three years. While Hamilton's playoff position was precarious, Hamilton's grip on a pro hockey team was proving to be beyond precarious. Those in the know would sniff and say that Hamilton's grip on professional hockey was year to year to say the least. Then sometime early Saturday the pipe bomb was lit.
Saturday morning would begin like they normally would. Peering through the haze of the early morning to the Keurig machine (don't judge me environmentalists), for a morning caffeine boost and then some surfing of the main headlines. An email from John Letherby the next day was nothing out of the ordinary . With potential furnace issues looming at the rolling Clark estates, I had hustled out without saying good bye. I figured he wanted to exchange pleasantries about the season that was with a hope that there would be more season to talk about in the very near future.
His article contained an article from the Winnipeg Free Press about the fate of the St John's IceCaps, a franchise long rumored to be on the move to a location more amenable to the Winnipeg Jets, the IceCaps parent club. My eyes were drawn to the bolded type:
The St. John’s group is believed to have struck an arrangement with the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens, who currently operate their AHL affiliate in Hamilton, Ont.
The AHL’s board of governors could approve the new St. John’s deal and the shift of the IceCaps back to Winnipeg at a governors meeting later next week.
I thought I had a pretty good handle on the politics and on going drama with the Bulldogs and their relationship with the city. In the past overtures had been made by Laval to house Montreal's farm , but they had barely put a shovel in the ground for their brand new arena, and despite a groundbreaking ceremony full of bravado that guaranteed the Montreal farm team as primary tenants, no one was backing up the moving trucks.. Besides, the lease at First Ontario Centre had one more year to run, with an option for two. I knew some wording did not guarantee that it had to be an AHL franchise in Hamilton, but I figured that Laval was 2, 3 years away. Next year would mark 20 years of AHL hockey in Hamilton under the Bulldogs brand, and even if the franchise left after next year, it would be a nice way to leave and it would give the city a year to see if there were any new suitors. I had tracked the OHL, specifically Erie's interest a couple of years back in this market and knew that they were on the block. I did not think Hamilton would be on the radar for anything remotely connected to the OHL.
The Hamilton Spectator's Scott Radley would follow up with an article that added little to the narrative. The article itself acknowledged the Free Press article and offered up a little speculation but few key people would put anything on the record and Michael Andelauer, Bulldogs owner was in Florida. As the day developed the story would pick up a little more steam. Radley, and Bulldog beat reporter Terrie Pecoskie would team up for a more in-depth article:
Two key things had been added to the story. First was a statement hastily released by the Hamilton Bulldogs website acknowledging the story, but nothing further. The second was the quote by Michael Andelauer saying that it was a "fair comment". The lack of strong denial permeated the air.
Have the Bulldogs, due to factors beyond their control, been cast as the sacrificial lamb to appease both the city of St John's and the Winnipeg Jets? Is this mere speculation, with little to no merit? Batman TV show cliff hanger aside, unrest and lack of stability are potentially fatal to any franchise. Check the Arizona Coyotes for proof of that. Their newspaper articles had been filled with impending bankruptcy and bail out stories more than hockey stories. The silver lining, and potential white night in this is Bulldog owner Michael Andelauer who has banged the drum for Hamilton as a viable hockey market for years now and has remained steadfastly committed to Steeltown. The lease has one more year left on it and the betting is that there will be a Hamilton Bulldogs franchise at First Ontario Centre next year. The Erie Otters remain with a For Sale sign, and owner Sherrie Bassin has a hefty 4.5M dollar bill to pay the Edmonton Oilers for a a loan that would have, in a convoluted way perhaps would have landed the Otters in Hamilton.
Right now the story, and the franchise remain fluid. A board of governors meeting has been rumored this week, and this may address the situation and start unraveling the long trail that may or may not lead to the AHL leaving Hamilton. All I can say right now is that it sucks to be an employee of the Bulldogs. As I said on Twitter, real people with real bills to pay face uncertainty, which I suppose is nothing new in pro sports, but still is daunting.
As for me, I love broadcasting AHL hockey, and having the chance to see and broadcast the level of hockey directly below the NHL. I get to work with great people at Cable 14 and the Hamilton Bulldogs and get to follow a lot of OHL'ers who I got to see and broadcast before as they now navigate the pro level.
I am always up for a good old fashioned cliff hanger, and I love sports business stories. However, as a proud Hamiltonian, I am not a fan of this one. It hits too close to home. Lets keep the best level of hockey in Hamilton at First Ontario Centre and lets let the great fans of Hamilton properly salute their team if an when they decide to leave in a proper manner on the ice and not somewhere in a boardroom.
Do not roll the credits on this one. There likely is a lot more layers to this story.
Steve Clark Hamilton Bulldogs and Niagara IceDogs TV Play by Play Voice