Aging First Ontario Centre not fit for Memorial Cup, no matter how good our team is
There are few things in sports quite like winning a Memorial Cup.
Winning the Memorial Cup on home ice? That is, for lack of a better term, the Holy Grail of junior hockey.
The national junior hockey championship is generally considered to be one of the most difficult championships to win in Canadian sports and a big performance in the tournament has propelled many future NHLers into early career stardom.
After four rounds of playoff hockey in a team’s own league, the winner must then play against three other championship-calibre teams in a round-robin style tournament to determine the winner.
For Hamilton hockey lovers, the Memorial Cup is a bitter topic. The city hasn’t won the trophy since 1976 and hasn’t hosted it since 1990. And while the tournament hosts generally receive an automatic bye into the tournament – joining the three major junior hockey league champions for a four-team tournament – our team was so bad in 1990 that we didn’t bother. The Hamilton Dukes, after finishing an embarrassing 11-49-6, stepped aside for the OHL Championship runner-up’s, the Kitchener Rangers.
It was 26 years ago when the Dukes packed up and left town, moving to the greener pastures of Guelph. The stench of the Dukes, who only lasted two years, left one of Ontario’s largest cities without an OHL franchise for over 20 years before the Belleville Bulls moved to Hamilton, renaming themselves the Hamilton Bulldogs in 2015.
With a new OHL team and a good-sized arena, Hamilton’s hopes to host a Memorial Cup were once again ignited in the last few years. And the team’s ownership and management seemed to be on board. They pitched the selection committee on the team’s location, arena and budding team. The 17,000-seat venue seemed to be in an ideal location, less than an hour from Toronto and Buffalo and reachable via transit.
But, as it goes, there’s more to the selection process than that. The aging First Ontario Centre (it’s still Copps Coliseum to us!) was passed over in favour of Regina’s Brandt Centre. The selection committee had serious concerns about the condition of the building, citing an escalator that’s been out of commission for three years, the lack of a high-definition scoreboard and, most notably, no dehumidification system in place, meaning it could be possible that a mid-May tournament would see soft ice and foggy conditions.
As the current incarnation of the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs continues to blossom, well on their way to a second-straight playoff berth and surging in the standings, it tends to leave the Hamilton hockey fan with an underwhelming bitterness. The cavernous First Ontario Centre feels empty during every Bulldogs game, with the league drawing less than 5,000 fans per game.
Until serious renovations are done to our beloved First Ontario Centre, or, God-forbid, they knock it down in favour of something that is more suitably sized to the city’s needs, there will no Memorial Cup in Hamilton.
Shawn W. Smith is a writer and reporter from the Hamilton area. His work has appeared on Sportsnet.ca, SB Nation and Vice Sports. He is desperate to see the Tigercats win one more Grey Cup before he dies, but is losing hope.