- Robbie Raskin
Homeless Bulldogs Land in Brantford
The Hamilton Bulldogs have a storied, albeit tumultuous, history bouncing up and down through the leagues over the decades. The latest chapter seemed to bring the promise of stability; a position in the Ontario Hockey League as one of the ‘big-market’ clubs, playing in a large arena in a large city. But in the pursuit of that permanency, the Bulldogs are upping sticks and leaving Hamilton for a while.
The team, who won the league in the last season before Covid, and then again in the first season after it, will be moving to the nearby city of Brantford for at least three years. The cause is a wholesale renovation of their home FirstOntario Centre, badly needed as the ‘80s-era venue is slated to become the centrepiece of a neighbourhood redevelopment project. The renovation will tear back the arena right down to the studs, before rebuilding it in place.
The plan has not been without controversy; American sport development group OVG originally planned to work during the off-season, preventing disruption to playing schedules. However, the group changed their aims abruptly and apparently with little warning to the Bulldogs or their fellow arena tenants Toronto Rock Lacrosse Club and Hamilton Honey Badgers Basketball Club. The 17 500-seat arena should be reopened in 2025, unrecognisable and modern compared to the current state of the facility. The work is to include a completely rebuilt exterior, new concourses, a redesigned seating bowl, new dining and back-of-house facilities, and a new suite level. On a larger scale, the arena will anchor a complete redesign of its city block, with residential, commercial, and cultural development exceeding $500 million.
In the interim, the Bulldogs have landed in the nearby city of Brantford, famous as the birthplace of hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. They’ll play out of the Brantford Civic Centre, near the city’s downtown and casino districts. The 3 500-seat arena is to receive $9 million in renovations to bring it up to OHL standards, and will host the Bulldogs for at least three years. Darkly, the Bulldogs have not officially stated they intend to return to Hamilton, though that is the general expectation. Management have complained publicly about the lack of transparency that led to their unexpected removal from the arena. Still, the prevailing thought is that the Bulldogs will return to Hamilton when work is complete.
So far, season membership sales in Brantford have been very popular, surpassing 2 000 tickets. But the Bulldogs aren’t the only ones displaced by the construction. The National Lacrosse League’s Toronto Rock, who only moved to Hamilton in 2021, are now searching for a temporary home. The leading candidate is rumoured to be Kitchener’s Memorial Auditorium, but nothing has been announced as yet. On the basketball front, the Hamilton Honey Badgers, part of the young CEBL league, will permanently leave the city. They’ve relocated to the Toronto suburb of Brampton, playing out of the CAA Centre (a former OHL rink itself).
Though most expect the Bulldogs and Rock to return to Hamilton soon enough, the future is murky at this point. Meanwhile, for the ageing arena at the heart of Hamilton’s central business district, a new era is set to dawn.