On Sunday afternoon, the OHL’s Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors took a three games-to-none, first-round series lead over the underdog Belleville Bulls.
These are the same Majors that will host the 2011 Memorial Cup this May at Hershey Centre in Mississauga. These are the same Majors who won the Hamilton Spectator Trophy as the OHL’s top team in the regular season. And these are the same Majors that can’t fill their building with fans. Ever. And that is, in a word, pathetic.
The Majors’ home rink, Hershey Centre, seats 5,420 for hockey. Sunday afternoon’s announced attendance – sorry, I have to correct that. The attendance is NEVER announced at Hershey Centre. On the Ontario Hockey League’s website, the attendance was posted as 1,807. Not a chance. My guess would be 1,000. As evidence, I include an image taken from the end of the rink at the moment of the opening face-off. Look to the left of the frame. That’s Section 9. Prime seating for a Majors’ game. Last Thursday, during Game One of the series with Belleville, 39 people were sitting in that section. Thirty-nine! I counted them. Pathetic.
Clearly, the people of Mississauga could not care less about their OHL team, the Memorial Cup hosts. Can you tell me then, why would this city and venue be hosting the premiere event in major junior hockey in Canada? I don’t know either.
When Mississauga first received an OHL team, back in 1998, they were the IceDogs. Their owner was the bombastic Don Cherry. They stunk. In fact, over their first four seasons, they only won 27 of 272 games. They stunk. But Mississauga fans came to Hershey Centre. They didn’t pack the place, but they grew, as did their love for their IceDogs. Then, as Cherry was shuffled to the background, the team began to improve.
Over the next five years, they made the playoffs four times. In fact, in 2004, the IceDogs surprised the junior hockey world and reached the OHL Championship Series (where they were swept by Ryan Callahan’s Guelph Storm). After nine seasons of up and down hockey, the IceDogs’ fans had a true devotion to their club. And that’s when the world came crashing down.
While the IceDogs were growing, the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors were playing in the smallest, most antiquated rink in the Canadian Hockey League. Their owner, the man who also owns the NHL’s Ottawa Senators, Eugene Melnyk, was desperately looking for another rink into which to move his team. In 2007, he bought the IceDogs, making him the owner of both OHL clubs. He knew exactly what he was going to do. He was going to give the fans in Mississauga the high, hard one.
In the summer of 2007, he sold the IceDogs and moved the Majors from Toronto into Hershey Centre. The IceDogs ended up about an hour away in St. Catharines. So, tell me this, why would fans who’d supported the Mississauga IceDogs for nine seasons of a building relationship, suddenly begin cheering for their rival Majors? They wouldn’t. Whoever thinks they would is a dreamer. Walking around Hershey Centre today, listening to the fans talk, the venom towards the IceDogs’ departure still exists. I don’t blame the fans one bit.
So that’s why no one goes to games at Hershey Centre, even four years after the Majors moved into the rink. IceDogs’ fans in Mississauga, the limited number that there were, felt betrayed. And they’ve stayed away in droves. Melnyk severely underestimated the loyalty of the junior hockey fan. They are, possibly, the most loyal fans on the earth. Just go to a game in Moose Jaw or Sudbury or Rimouski on a Sunday night in January. You’ll see.
And, to make matters even worse, the Majors’ don’t promote. Hardly anything. Ever. They don’t even have child prices for tickets! That tells you all you need to know. They don’t market. They don’t know how to, it seems.
And these are your Memorial Cup hosts. A team that can barely put 1,000 people into its building for a playoff game. Good call, CHL.