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Hamilton won't be without a major hockey team, officials say

03/08/2015 09:48 EDT | Updated 05/08/2015 05:59 EDT
Members of a committee designed to keep high-calibre hockey in Hamilton say they're not overly worried that the city would be without a major hockey team if the Bulldogs leave. Someone would come and take their place.

Unconfirmed reports this weekend say that the Hamilton Bulldogs, a Montreal Canadiens farm team, are moving to St. John's, N.L.. The team wouldn't confirm or deny, but a media report says a deal could be reached this week.

Coun. Terry Whitehead, who chairs the professional sports committee, said it would be sad if the Bulldogs left. The committee's original mandate was to bring an NHL team to Hamilton.

The committee is keeping a close eye on developments, Whitehead said. But he's not worried that Hamilton will be without major hockey.

"I'm not nervous at all," said Whitehead, a Ward 8 councillor. "It's too big a market. It's too big of an arena to ignore."

The Winnipeg Free Press reported this weekend that there is a "strong chance" the AHL team will move to Newfoundland to take the place of the St. John's IceCaps, which it says are moving to Winnipeg.

True North Sports and Entertainment granted the IceCaps a one-year extension in September to take the team through the 2015-16 season in St. John's, the paper says. The extension will help the IceCaps president find a replacement AHL team for the city.

The Bulldogs released an email statement Saturday that didn't confirm or deny the rumours.

"We are aware of the reports but at this point nothing is official," it said. "We don't want to add to the speculation with unconfirmed and inaccurate information. What we can tell you is that [Bulldogs owner and chairman] Michael Andlauer has been committed to our community, the fans and hockey in the city of Hamilton for over a decade and that will not change moving forward. We have no further comment at this time."

Donald Beauchamp, the Montreal Canadiens's senior vice-president of communications, also kept mum when questioned by CBC Hamilton this weekend.

"We're aware of the reports that are out there and we cannot confirm anything," he said.

"Until there is more information, we cannot make further comment."

The Bulldogs signed a three-year extension of their lease for FirstOntario Centre in downtown Hamilton in 2013, which ensures that "in 2015-2016, the Bulldogs will celebrate their 20th season in the great city of Hamilton," Andlauer said then.

Rumours of leaving before

The agreement, which included the city and venue manager Global Spectrum, came with a two-year option. It came after more than two years of tense negotiations.

It's not the first time rumours have swirled around the Bulldogs' future in Hamilton. There has been speculation in recent years that the Bulldogs might move to Laval, Que., where a new $120-million sports complex is scheduled to be finished this year. At the same time, the OHL's Erie Otters were rumoured to be interested in Hamilton, which the team refuted.

If the Bulldogs move, Whitehead said, it would create "a catacomb" at FirstOntario Centre.

"You need a tenant," he said. "Without a main tenant, it's no different than having a stadium without the Tiger-Cats. Whether it's an OHL team or an AHL team, it's important that there is a high calibre of hockey that continues."

Coun. Jason Farr is a member of the committee and was a sports announcer before he became a Ward 2 councillor.

'A hotbed of hockey'

He hopes the rumours aren't true. The Bulldogs are integral to Hamilton, he said.

"They're as much a part of Hamilton and downtown and the city as steel and donuts at this point," he said. "If true, they will be missed, I'm sure, by thousands."

If the Bulldogs left, "we would make every effort as a committee to do our darndest to see [the team] replaced with something equivalent or even better."

Hamilton "is a hotbed of hockey," he said.

"All kinds of conversations will surface and resurface with this, for sure."

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