Bulldog

Hamilton Bulldogs

Arena Name: FirstOntario Centre (but still commonly referred to as Copps Coliseum)
Capacity: 17,500
Built: 1985
Address: 101 York Blvd. Hamilton, ON, L8R 3L4
Telephone No: (905) 546-3100
Ice Surface Size: Regulation
Franchise Date: 2015
OHL Championships: 1, in 2017-18
Memorial Cup Championships: None
Colours: Black, White & Gold
Official Web Site: HamiltonBulldogs.com

OHL

 FirstOntario Centre

Copps Coliseum

 What's the Arena Like?

First Visit: September 26, 2015
CHL Arena: 41
OHL Arena: 29

The former Copps Coliseum is the mid-1980's Platonic ideal of the perfect NHL arena, closely resembling other similar vintage NHL and former NHL buildings like Joe Louis Arena, Brendan Byrne Arena and the Nassau Coliseum. It was constructed to replace the old Hamilton Forum a mere eight years after that building was condemned and demolished, and as with so many other things Hamilton, what was built was both too late and inappropriate when it was finally completed.

Hamilton's history with hockey is as convoluted and twisty as an M. Night Shyamalan movie. The city had an NHL team, the Tigers, back in the 1920's, and the pipe dream of someday getting the NHL back was what ultimately led to Copps Coliseum being built in the 1980's. But first, some back story. Hamilton's former OHL team, the Red Wings/Fincups, had a long history in Steeltown, winning the Memorial Cup in 1962 and 1976, but shortly after Dale McCourt led them to their second national title, the icemaking plant in the old "converted factory chimney" of an arena failed in late August of 1976. The Fincups were homeless, and when a last-ditch effort at securing a lease at the Mountain Arena failed to materialize after a campaign by local NIMBY activists, they moved to spend one season 40 miles down the road in St. Catharines. The Fincups finally did secure that lease on the Mountain for the 1977-78 season, but after a full year of unsuccessfully lobbying Hamilton city council to build a spectator arena (and remember, Hamilton spent the decade between 1976 and 1985 with no arena larger than a 2,500 capacity within the city limits), Fincup ownership sold out to Brantford and the team was lost.

After nearly a decade of dithering, Hamilton City Council finally decided to aim for the clouds in the early 1980's and built a state-of-the-art, world-class NHL arena downtown with the expressed intention of luring an NHL team to town. There was not, at the time, a deep-pocketed local owner with the intention of bringing the NHL to town; nor was Hamilton any more prosperous or attractive of a town to the NHL as it is today. But dreams are what they are, and the city financed constructing an arena that would easily have been among the finest in John Ziegler's NHL had any team been insane enough to move in. So that first season, Copps Coliseum hosted the OHL again (the Brantford Alexanders predictably failed in Brantford and moved back as the Hamilton Steelhawks, thus meaning the city had its original franchise back), some concerts and trade shows, and... that was pretty much it.

An NHL arena by definition is too large for nearly any other form of hockey. There are occasional NBA arenas that host AHL teams around the United States, but crowd noise dies in such places and atmosphere is nonexistent. The Steelhawks drew poorly enough in Copps in their 1980's residency, but by percentage of capacity it was far, far worse, and no one was surprised when ownership uprooted again in 1988 to move to Niagara Falls and become the Thunder. A few years later Hamilton had a new OHL team, the Dukes, about whom the less said, the better, and by 1991 junior hockey had abandoned one of its foundational cities, a city with a long and proud history of the game, and a city that in spite of its permanent economic malaise was still the third-largest in Ontario.

Then the next twenty-five years happened; the NHL never really seriously examined moving to Hamilton, and Copps aged to the point that apart from its capacity it is no longer really NHL-calibre. The city had an AHL team for a bunch of years or something, and they drew reasonably well with a deep-pocketed owner, but even as they averaged a perfectly respectable 5,000 or so, Copps was still generally never more than 1/3 full.

Then all of a sudden, one day in the late winter of 2015, the AHL's California expansion meant that the Bulldogs lost their affiliation and were unlikely to pick up another one, and lo and behold, the long-for-sale Belleville Bulls were available for some rich dude to overpay for and move. So now, twenty-five years later, Hamilton finally has an OHL team again, and the move happened so quickly that the new OHL Bulldogs spent their first OHL season wearing the same uniforms as the AHL team, and all elements of gameday presentation are pretty much the same as they were for the AHL.

So right, in terms of the arena itself, Copps (or "FirstOntario Centre in honour of Victor K Copps", as we are all required to call it in casual conversation) is still the same big white elephant of a building in the centre of downtown Hamilton, minutes off the 403. It is done up in white cladding and accented in orange, with windows about the facade and the underside of the "steps" of the upper bowl visible from street level. It looks small in comparison with a lot of modern NHL arenas, though it's still easily the biggest arena in the OHL, with the lower bowl alone having more seats than any other rink in the league save London and Ottawa. The ticket office is on street level, and once you're inside you climb an escalator to get to the concourse. The concourse is the "single concourse clusterfuck" design so beloved of 1970's and 1980's arena architects, and the upper bowl is curtained off unless the team sells enough tickets to be worth opening it up (n.b: this basically never happens). Washrooms are plentiful and clean. Apart from the video board, there really aren't a lot of signs anywhere that it's not 1985 anymore.

The arena bowl is indistinguishable from any NHL building of 1980's vintage, with two massive decks making up the bulk of Copps Coliseum. When it was built, all of the seats were randomly coloured gaudy lemony yellow, grapety purple and orangey orange, but at some point since my last AHL visit in 2007 the lower bowl seats were replaced by comfortable, padded navy blue seats (you can still see the Bowl of Trix seats in the upper level). The scoreclock is four-sided and has a video board, and game presentation is far more professional than the Roman orgy of advertising and promotional giveaways that makes up today's OHL fan experience in many cities. This is a good thing - the higher standards of AHL game presentation have bled over to the OHL team, and one hopes they won't let that standard slip.

In my old Copps review I wrote that "The city's OHL days aren't forgotten, either - Memorial Cup banners from 1962 and 1976 hang from the ceiling", but as of my last visit to Copps in the 2018 OHL finals, the ceiling was bare. One hopes that this was just a temporary oversight - connecting the Bulldogs to the city's long history with the OHL would be a significant step forward in promoting the team as Hamilton's own, not just one where any player who performs well is likely to be called up to the big club in Montreal or Edmonton. But with that said, while I lament the loss of the Belleville Bulls (and with it one of the last links to the OHL's small-town community roots), the league is better off for having a strong Hamilton franchise. For the first time, well, ever, the OHL has strong franchises in nearly every potential market in Ontario and the US border states, with only Elliott Kerr's Mississauga Steelheads being potential targets of a move.

FirstOntario Centre is still too big, still a dated white elephant, and still not an ideal home to anyone but the NHL team that never materialized, but godspeed to the Bulldogs, and here's hoping they carry on the city's proud junior hockey tradition.

 Inside FirstOntario Centre

Copps Coliseum Interior

 Future Developments
Copps Coliseum has never been the right building for any tenant apart from the NHL team that never came, and with every NHL team save Calgary now playing in a building that is either newer or has had literally a billion dollars in upgrades (looking at you, Madison Square Garden), it seems unlikely that it ever will. The arena management report that they only open the upper bowl for events less than ten times per year, and given Hamilton's size, an arena in the 10,000 seat range seems like it would be more appropriate to the market.

Being Hamilton, city council is now prepared to spend decades debating where to build that arena. Michael Andlauer, the Bulldogs' owner, had a plan to build an arena and parking garage at Lime Ridge Mall on the top of the mountain, easily accessible by transit and highway. The plan was for be for it to be privately-funded, but Hamilton turned it down. The city is now debating whether to renovate Copps and lose capacity or to build a new arena outright, meanwhile, Mr. Andlauer is exploring his options in neighbouring Burlington.

Little has changed in municipal government since the days of the Fincups, so while you can expect Copps Coliseum to be replaced someday, there's no way to predict when that day may come.

 Franchise History
The Hamilton Bulldogs started play in 1996 as an AHL team, and called the city home for nearly twenty years before being unceremoniously uprooted and moved to St. John's, of all places. The current OHL Bulldogs that replaced the AHL edition started as an expansion team in Belleville in 1981 as the Bulls, but moved to Steeltown in 2015.

 Retired Numbers
None

 Feedback
If anything is incorrect or you have something to add, please e-mail me at Email and I'll update the guide.


Copyright © OHL Arena Guide, 2002-20.
All rights reserved.
Last Revised: February 16, 2020