This is the Modern World
The 1980's dawned a new era in the league's history, as the league finally split completely with the OHA, becoming fully independent. David Branch was hired as commissioner around this time too, a position he still holds. Most notable to hockey fans, though, was the league's third name in a decade - the cumbersome OMJHL name was shortened to the simpler Ontario Hockey League.
The first major change of the new era occurred just a year later in 1981, when the dominant Cornwall Royals were transferred into to the OHL from the QMJHL. The Royals had won three Memorial Cups during their decade in the Q, and the OHL wanted the Ontario-based squad in the Ontario league. They played at the Cornwall Civic Complex. Also in 1981, the Belleville Bulls joined the league as an expansion team, playing out of Yardmen Arena. Around this time, the Wolves played two home games at Walden Community Centre during a municipal strike.
The following year, 1982, was witness to more changes, as the Holody family brought Guelph back into the fold twenty years after the old Royals became the Kitchener Rangers. The team still played at the old Memorial Gardens. The team name, Guelph Platers, came from the fact that the Holodys owned an electroplating business. 1982 was also the end of an era for the second-generation Niagara Falls Flyers, who moved at season's end to the previously untapped outpost of North Bay, becoming the Centennials and playing out of North Bay Memorial Gardens. A couple years later, the big changes continued as the Brantford Alexanders moved back down the highway to their old home of Hamilton, becoming the Steelhawks. The team was lured by the fact that Hamilton had finally gotten its act together long enough to begin construction of Copps Coliseum, although the Steelhawks also spent a season on the Mountain while Copps was being completed.
The Steelhawks wouldn't last long, though - in 1988 the league's nomads were on the move again, back down the highway to Niagara Falls Memorial Arena, to become the Thunder. Filling the NHL-sized arena in Hamilton for junior hockey was simply too much of a challenge. Meanwhile, new ownership in Kingston renamed the Canadians to the Raiders, and gave them the same black and silver colours of the eponymous football team. After one disastrous season, the Raiders would be renamed again under new ownership, becoming the Frontenacs, which revived a name that had been used by Kingston hockey teams for over a century.
Hamilton wouldn't be without junior hockey for long - time finally ran out on the legendary Marlboros in 1989, who gave up on downtown Toronto after nearly a century and moved down the QEW to become the Dukes, taking up residence at Copps Coliseum again. At the same time, low attendance in Guelph sent the Platers on the move up to Owen Sound, which was actually the first city ever to win two Memorial Cups in the 1920s, but whose junior hockey history essentially stopped there. They would play at the Bayshore Community Centre, which at the time was in essence a community rink with bench seating.
In the Western Hockey League, American expansion had occurred a long time previously, while the Quebec League had experimented with a team in Plattsburgh, New York in the mid 1980s. America was the last frontier for the OHL, and in 1990, a new decade dawned with a new team in downtown Detroit, the Ambassadors, who played their first season out of Cobo Arena. After one season there, Olympia Sports and Entertainment decided that maintaining ice in the aging facility was too much of a hassle, and thus the Ambassadors moved a few hundred yards away to Joe Louis Arena, the same home as the Red Wings. The Red Wings connection proved irresistable to marketers, and for the team's third season they would be renamed the Detroit Junior Red Wings.
The turbulence in the league continued into the 1990s as the OHL gradually began the process of converting from a community-based hockey circuit to a big business. After two disastrous seasons in Hamilton, the Dukes moved to the Guelph Gardens, replacing the old Platers and becoming the Storm. Meanwhile, economic depression in Cornwall coupled with a downturn in the fortunes of the Royals, and the team uprooted in 1992, moving to the Newmarket Recreational Complex while keeping the Royals nickname.
The mid 1990s witnessed even more changes. The Newmarket Royals were an unmitigated disaster in their Toronto bedroom community and were sold after only two seasons to the Ciccarelli family, who moved them to their hometown of Sarnia and renamed them the Sting. The Sting played their first few years at Sarnia Arena while the new Sarnia Sports and Entertainment Centre was under construction. Whereas Sarnia was a new frontier for the league, 1995 saw a return to a very old one, as the rapidly growing city of Barrie, abandoned more than thirty years previous, was welcomed back into the league with the Colts. The Colts also were forced into a temporary facility, the old Barrie Arena, for their first half-season while the new Barrie Molson Centre was being built.
Time ran out on Niagara Region in 1996, as sagging attendance at the aging Memorial Arena forced the Thunder out. They would move down around Lake Erie to the neophyte junior hockey market of Erie, Pennsylvania. Tullio Arena had been home in the past to minor pro hockey of various descriptions, but the junior game was new to the area. In the league's other American market, the Junior Wings had taken off in Hockeytown to the point that they occasionally were able to sell out the gigantic Joe. However, an ongoing feud between Big Wings owner Mike Illitch and Little Wings owner Peter Karmanos boiled over in 1995-96, as the team was unceremoniously evicted. Karmanos was forced to drop the Red Wings name, so the team was renamed for his recently-purchased NHL team, the Hartford Whalers. The new Detroit Whalers played part of that season at the massive Palace of Auburn Hills, but that rink's general busyness meant that the Whalers were forced to play a few home games at the tiny, ancient Oak Park Ice Arena. Karmanos rapidly bought suburban land for a new arena and built it within months, and moved his boys into the new Compuware Sports Arena in Plymouth after one horrible nomadic season.
In 1997 the OHL went back to the future, as a team of investors resurrected the old St. Michael's Majors name in conjunction with the College, and created a new expansion team that played their first season at St Michael's College Arena. The year after, they worked out a lease at Maple Leaf Gardens, and would stay there until the building closed. The OHL wanted a presence in Ontario's largest city, and the Majors were successful at first. The original plan for the next year was to increase to 19 teams, with another expansion team to be created in Brampton under the ownership of Trivial Pursuit magnate Scott Abbott. However, Don Cherry came knocking on the league's door with a plan to put a team in Mississauga, and the OHL found itself unable to resist Cherry's plaidly charm. The GTA market was quickly oversaturated, as the new Brampton Sports and Entertainment Centre and Hershey Centre were built a few kilometres apart. A few years later, when Maple Leaf Gardens was closed by the Leafs, the Majors were forced back to the only rink they could find a lease in - St. Michael's College Arena. The "temporary" move would last seven years.
The turbulence of the 1980s and 1990s finally seemed to have settled down by the turn of the millennium, as the OHL morphed into a 20-team, two conference, four division league. The Owen Sound Platers were threatened with a move to Cornwall in 2000 when the Holody family sold out, but the team was purchased by local investors instead, who renamed the team the Attack. North Bay would not prove so lucky in 2002, as the northern city's aging arena and low attendance combined with ownership's desire to cash in on their investment. A season-ticket drive and a passionate "Save the Cents" campaign was waged, but to no avail as the team was moved to Mid-Michigan, becoming the Saginaw Spirit and playing at the Saginaw County Event Center. After that, the OHL entered its longest period of stability since the 1960's, with no franchise relocations or renamings until 2007.
The same could not be said about the league's arenas, though. In the NHL in the 1990s, old rinks were unceremoniously replaced with new ones in nearly every city, to the point that in 2016-17, twenty-seven of the league's thirty teams play in buildings built since 1993. The trend was slow to trickle down to the junior ranks, but aging buildings throughout the league started to be replaced around the turn of the millennium. Guelph Memorial Gardens was closed in 2000 and later demolished in 2006, and replaced with the Guelph Sports and Entertainment Centre. The London Gardens was next to follow, shutting its doors in 2002 and being converted into a cycling velodrome as the Knights moved from the industrial fringe of the city to the heart of downtown and the sparkling new John Labatt Centre. In 2006, two more old rinks were shuttered as the Sault Memorial Gardens was closed and demolished and replaced with the Essar Centre next door. Meanwhile, the Oshawa Civic Auditorium also shut a month later, replaced by the new GM Centre.
In 2007-08, the league finally managed to correct the mistakes of a decade previous with a desaturating of the GTA. The Mississauga IceDogs were purchased by Majors owner Eugene Melnyk and unceremoniously evicted from their chocolatey home, so that Melnyk's boys could take over the lease and move into the Hershey Centre. The Dogs, meanwhile, were rumoured to be moving to every conceivable destination both in Ontario and within two hundred miles of it before finally being re-sold to printing executive Bill Burke and moved to St. Catharines, where the ancient Jack Gatecliff Arena was pressed into service again, with raucous, sellout crowds becoming a hallmark of the team's new home. The new building trend continued in 2008, as two long-delayed arenas opened in two historic cities, with the much-opposed K-Rock Centre opening in Kingston in February to mostly favourable reviews, and the Windsor WFCU Centre opening in December as a new home for the Spitfires.
As though junior hockey fans in the Halton-Peel region hadn't suffered enough, in 2012 Eugene Melnyk sold the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors, returning the Majors brand to St. Michael's College on his way out. The team's new owner, Elliott Kerr, decided to start over with an entirely new identity, and the Majors were renamed to the Mississauga Steelheads. The following year, Scott Abbott's original fifteen-year lease with the city of Brampton expired, and he decided to give up on trying to compete in an oversaturated market, moving the Battalion to the North Bay Memorial Gardens. The team instantly found community support and financial success in North Bay, and thankfully, North Bay's OHL future looks secure. Finally, in 2014, the new Meridian Centre opened in downtown St. Catharines.
In 2015, the OHL's longest period of stability ever finally came to a screeching halt, with two franchise moves taking place concurrently. Peter Karmanos finally retired and sold out all of his hockey operations, and his Plymouth Whalers, who had never really found long-term support in western Detroit, were sold to a businessman who moved them an hour up the road to the DFCU Center in Flint. The new team was christened the Firebirds, and in spite of a rocky start, they look to have found stability, decent crowds, and a natural rival in Saginaw.
The second move of 2015 was far less expected, and started with the AHL's California expansion, of all things. The AHL's recent trend is for pro teams to have their affiliates as close to home as possible, to allow scouting and development staff to work with their minor pro prospects. Accordingly, all of the Pacific NHL teams (apart from Vancouver) uprooted their AHL affiliates to California together in 2015, and the resulting game of franchise musical chairs ultimately wound up with the AHL Bulldogs losing their affiliation with the Montreal Canadiens. (The Canadiens, paradoxically, were moving their affiliate to Newfoundland, but only temporarily, until a new 10,000 seat arena in Laval was finished.) Bulldogs ownership then went looking for any other team that could satisfy the lease at Copps Coliseum, and the purchase of the Belleville Bulls went through so quickly that there was never any attempt at a "Save the Bulls" campaign - it was a fait accompli before anyone knew it was happening. The move happened so late in the year that the new OHL Bulldogs had to wear the Canadiens' colours in their first year of operation, before switching in 2016-17 to the more traditional Hamilton black and gold. The Bulldogs also were forced to play the Bulls' schedule in 2015-16, and are actually still located in the East Division because of reasons?
The long-term viability of most OHL franchises seems assured - the oldest and most run-down arenas in the league are mostly now history, and all of the older buildings in the league have been renovated. There may be moves in the future, as Wolves ownership is making noise about replacing Sudbury Arena, now the league's oldest. More pressingly, the Steelheads have still had an uphill battle selling junior hockey in Mississauga, and one can imagine the team may throw in the towel at some point in the future. But apart from Western New York (which would require either the cooperation of the Buffalo Sabres or a new arena to be built), there really aren't a lot of potential markets available. Even Belleville is getting a new AHL team in 2017, with the Yardmen Arena being renovated to bring in the Senators' affiliate. The only thing that is guaranteed is that junior hockey will still remain an attractive proposition in this province, as an exciting and affordable community alternative to the bloated NHL.
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