The Modern Era or, "Hey, we can make some serious money doing this!"
The Modern Era of the Ontario Hockey League begins with the moment it stopped being the Ontario Hockey League. The Detroit Ambassadors were founded in December of 1989, and with the league's expansion into the United States, the OHL stopped being solely an Ontario-based organization. But that expansion decision, in retrospect, was the beginning of the league's growth into the money-making international behemoth it is today.
American expansion wasn't actually a new idea. In the Western Hockey League, there had been American teams dating all the way back to the founding of the Portland Winter Hawks in 1976, and the Quebec League had experimented with a team in Plattsburgh, New York in the mid 1980's. But it was a new idea for the OHL, and in 1990, a new decade and new era dawned with a new team in downtown Detroit. The Ambassadors played their first season out of Cobo Arena right on the Detroit Riverfront, and close enough to Windsor Arena that were it not for the river and the international border, it would be a relatively easy walk. After one season there, Olympia Sports and Entertainment decided that maintaining ice in the aging facility at Cobo was too much of a hassle, and thus the Ambassadors moved a few hundred yards away to Joe Louis Arena, sharing a home with the NHL's 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 began to grow from a community-based hockey league to a multi-million dollar business. After two disastrous seasons in Hamilton, the Dukes moved to the vacant Guelph Memorial Gardens, replacing the old Platers and becoming the Storm. Meanwhile, economic depression in Cornwall and a downturn in the fortunes of the Royals on the ice proved too much for them to overcome, and the team uprooted in 1992, moving to the Newmarket Recreational Complex while keeping the Royals nickname.
The mid 1990's witnessed even more changes. The Newmarket Royals were an unmitigated disaster in York Region and were sold after only two seasons to the Ciccarelli family, who moved the team 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 before, 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 southwest around the shore of 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 Louis Arena. However, an ongoing feud between Big Wings owner Mike Illitch and Little Wings owner Peter Karmanos boiled over in 1995-96, and the Junior Wings were unceremoniously evicted. Karmanos was forced to drop the Junior Red Wings name after the Red Wings revoked their license, so the team was renamed for the NHL team that Mr. Karmanos had just purchased: the Hartford Whalers. The new Detroit Whalers played part of 1995-96 at the massive Palace of Auburn Hills, but that rink's general busyness meant that the Whalers were also forced to play a few home games at the tiny Oak Park Ice Arena as well. Karmanos quickly bought suburban land in the far west of Metro Detroit for a new arena and built it within months, and the Whalers moved into the new Compuware Sports Arena in Plymouth after one 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 that building closed in 2000. The OHL wanted a presence again 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, so that there would be one team in the western GTA, one downtown, and one in the east. However, Don Cherry came knocking on the league's door with a plan to put another team in a new building being built in Mississauga, and the OHL found itself unable to resist Cherry's bombastic charm. Halton-Peel was quickly oversaturated, as the new Brampton Sports and Entertainment Centre and the Hershey Centre were built only 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 in which they could find a lease, settling back into 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 instead purchased by local investors 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.
In the NHL in the 1990s, old rinks were unceremoniously replaced with new ones in nearly every city, to the point that in 2019-20, every team in the league plays in a building built since 1993 except the Rangers and Flames. The trend was slow to trickle down to the junior ranks, but aging buildings throughout the OHL started to be replaced around the turn of the millennium. Guelph Memorial Gardens was the first to go, closing in 2000 to be replaced with the Guelph Sports and Entertainment Centre. The London Gardens was next to follow, shutting its doors in the fall of 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 Steelback 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 as they started the process of desaturating the GTA. The Mississauga IceDogs were purchased by St. Michael's 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 OHL had a policy against the same person owning two competing teams, though, so it was known that Melnyk was putting the team back on the market before the ink was even dry on the bill of sale. The IceDogs 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. The new building trend continued in 2008, as two long-delayed arenas opened in two historic cities, with the K-Rock Centre opening in Kingston in February to mostly favourable reviews, and Windsor's 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 rebranded as 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 north 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. In 2014, the new Meridian Centre opened in downtown St. Catharines, as the city kept a promise to build a new arena made to ownership when the team relocated there.
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 Hamilton 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 former AHL uniforms with 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 now seems assured - the oldest and most run-down arenas in the league are mostly now history, and all of the remaining 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 joint oldest with Kitchener, whose Auditorium is far more up-to-date. 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.
In terms of potential future expansion, there are only two real options if nothing changes. Western New York would require either the cooperation of the Buffalo Sabres or a new arena to be built. The rapidly-growing city of Brantford might be an option, though the Civic Centre is in poor condition and too small for the modern OHL on a permanent basis. Otherwise, the only options that are even conceivable are Chatham (the ancient Memorial Arena is too small and decrepit to even be used temporarily), and Cornwall (the Civic Complex is in fine shape, but the city is small and has been declining economically for decades). Even poor Belleville somehow got a new AHL team in 2017, with the Yardmen Arena being renovated to bring in the Senators' affiliate.
Future moves are always possible, but the OHL has been stable at twenty teams for more than two decades, and with no expansion rumoured on the horizon and all but a handful of the league's old arenas now replaced, it seems that the OHL will remain recognizable for decades into the future.