The Independent Era or, "Every arena in Ontario needs a team."
1967 was the last year that the NHL officially sponsored junior hockey teams. For 1968 and onwards, the teams would be independently owned and operated, and rather than a prospect signing as a teenager for the Leafs or Red Wings or whomever, they too would be independently-developed until they reached age 20, at which point, a new concept called the NHL Entry Draft would determine which amateur players went to which professional team.
For 1967, the league expanded east of Peterborough for the first time with the birth of the Ottawa 67's, named for Canada's Centennial Year. The team was forced to play at the Hull Arena for the first half of their first season due to construction overruns on Landsdowne Park, the combined football (Frank Clair Stadium) and hockey (Ottawa Civic Centre) arena that would serve as the team's home once it finally opened in January 1968.
The independent OHA soldiered on with ten previously-affiliated teams that season in Montreal and Peterborough (MTL), Toronto and London (TOR), Oshawa and Niagara Falls (BOS), Kitchener (NYR), St. Catharines (CHI), and Hamilton (DET), plus the new team in Ottawa. Only the London Nationals elected to rebrand in the wake of the NHL's withdrawal, changing their colours that offseason to green and gold and their name to the Knights.
The first real shakeup to since the birth of the Metro League a decade earlier occurred in 1972. The Montreal Junior Canadiens had withdrawn from the Quebec Junior Hockey League during the Metro League debacle, lured by a higher level of competition in Ontario. Now, ten years later, Quebec had put its hockey house in order and founded their own Major Junior League, the QMJHL, and they wanted the Junior Habs back. The QMJHL threatened the OHA with a lawsuit, and rather than going to court, a compromise deal was worked out where the Ontario league would grant the Junior Canadiens a one-year hiatus from competition. A Montreal expansion team in the Quebec League was then awarded to the same ownership group, who also kept the same lease at the Montreal Forum, and retained the same roster as the former OHA team. The only difference between the two entities was the name - the new team rebranded itself as the Montreal Bleu Blanc et Rouge. Former Montreal OHA players were all given the option of either staying with the Montreal QMJHL team or staying in the OHA, in which case their playing rights would be determined by a dispersal draft. Only one player, future NHLer Ian Turnbull, chose to move to the O, ultimately winding up in an Ottawa 67's uniform.
Meanwhile, up in the north of Ontario, the former Northern Ontario Hockey Association, in decline for decades, was collapsing. The Northern Ontario champion hadn't managed to beat the OHA champion since 1936-37, and once northern Ontario players started seeking out playing opportunities in the south, the writing was on the wall. In 1972, the OHL poached the two strongest NOHA teams as expansion teams, though both kept their own rosters from the previous year. The Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, playing out of the Sault Memorial Gardens, and the Sudbury Wolves, playing out of Sudbury Arena, joined the southern circuit for 1972-73. In Sudbury's case, the team's roster was actually merged with that of the Niagara Falls Flyers, as the Emms family who owned the Flyers sold them off to northern ownership. The next season, 1973-74, witnessed the "rebirth" of the dormant Montreal Junior Canadiens franchise, now playing in the Kingston Memorial Centre as the Kingston Canadians. The team colours and name may have been the same as the old Montreal team, but for all intents and purposes, they were an expansion team. Around this time, the OHL board of governors also seriously considered a bid from Thunder Bay for an expansion team as well, but common sense prevailed.
1974 saw the biggest shakeup to junior hockey in Ontario since the split between Junior A and B in 1933. Prior to that year, all levels of hockey in the province of Ontario had been governed by the Ontario Hockey Association, from Major Junior all the way down to Tyke. However, taking a cue from the rebel WHL and the newly-established QMJHL, major junior hockey in Ontario split from the sport's provincial governing body, forming a semi-independent league that would be known as the Ontario Major Junior Hockey League. For the first time, a league commissioner - Clarence "Tubby" Schmalz - was appointed, and the OMJHL started to oversee its own affairs as an independent body for the first time.
Throughout the 1970's, the Toronto Marlboros, still owned by Harold Ballard though no longer officially under the control of the Toronto Maple Leafs, also tried their best to keep themselves in a permanent home. Maple Leaf Gardens was booked solidly for most of the decade between concerts, the Leafs, and the WHA's Toros. The Marlboros brought in the least amount of money, and were therefore the lowest priority for scheduling. They played temporarily at the Markham Centennial Centre and North York Centennial Centre here and there in the 1970s, as well as playing the odd home games at the Brantford Civic Centre.
1974 also witnessed the renaming of the old Hamilton Red Wings to their new whimsical portmanteau - the Hamilton Fincups, named for the team's owners, Joe Finochio and Ron and Mario Cupido. They still played at the old "converted factory chimney" otherwise known as the Forum, although the new owners made it clear that they would not be able to stomach playing in the tiny, decrepit pit for much longer. The next year, 1975, saw the league expand further west from London with the rebirth of the expansion Windsor Spitfires, once again playing out of the Windsor Arena.
In 1976-77, the strangest episode in the league's long history occurred. The St. Catharines Black Hawks had been purchased by the Emms family, former owners of the Niagara Falls Flyers, and Hap Emms decided he wanted his team back in Niagara Falls; as a result, the Black Hawks were moved and the Flyers were reborn. Going into the 1976-77 season, the defending Memorial Cup champion Hamilton Fincups led the pack with a strong cast of returning players. However, in August of 1976 the ice-making plant in the ancient, battered Forum broke down. Ownership attempted to arrange for the team to play at Mountain Arena for the season, but opposition from local residents prevented it. Hamilton City Council continued to dither about whether to build a 7-8,000 seat building for the Fincups or an 18,000 seat building in an attempt to secure a WHA team, and with no options left in Steeltown, the Fincups moved to Garden City Arena in St. Catharines for the 1976-77 season, uprooting literally weeks before the opening of training camp. Ron Cupido also announced that the privately-owned Forum would be demolished as soon as the local groups who had booked into the building had finished with it. True to his word, demolition started August 27, 1976, less than two weeks after the Fincups announced their move. Cupido noted at the time that he was expecting some opposition to the demolition from heritage groups, but none came.
The St. Catharines Fincups would only play one season at the Garden City Arena, moving back to Hamilton for 1977-78 after finally arranging a lease at the Mountain Arena. That season still saw no progress on the new arena issue though, and, out of options, ownership threw up their hands and moved the team down the road permanently to the nearby Brantford Civic Centre, becoming the Alexanders.
1980 was the dawn a new era in the Ontario Hockey 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, playing out of the Cornwall Civic Complex, were transferred into to the OHL from the QMJHL. The Royals had originally tried to join the OHL back in the late 1960's, but were declined, and joined the QMJHL instead. The Royals won three Memorial Cups during their decade in the Q, becoming one of the CHL's great powerhouse teams, and the OHL decided it now wanted the Royals after all. Also in 1981, the Belleville Bulls joined the league as an expansion team, playing out of Yardmen Arena.
The following year, 1982, was witness to more changes, as the Holody family brought Guelph back into the fold twenty years after the old Guelph Royals had become 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 franchise moves 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 spent their first 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 another new ownership group, 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. Harold Ballard died in 1990 and his heirs quickly sold off his empire. The legendary Toronto Marlboros, having lost money playing at Maple Leaf Gardens for decades, were sold off down the QEW to Hamilton after nearly a century in Toronto. They became 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 in Canada to win two Memorial Cups in the 1920's, but whose junior hockey history essentially had frozen there. They would play at the Bayshore Community Centre, which at the time was in essence a community rink with bench seating.
In retrospect, this era of the OHL is best defined by its independence and its existence as a Mom-and-Pop league, with teams owned by small-time local businessmen and operating on shoestring budgets, moving around constantly in search of higher profits. The 1990's though, began the process of the league turning into a big business.