Port Colborne Pirates Moving

Junior B team leaves Port Colborne for Pelham

The owner of a junior B hockey team that wants to leave one of Niagara’s newest and biggest arenas for one of its oldest and smallest is banking on smaller being better.

Tim Toffolo, whose Pirates this week received approval from the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA) on Tuesday to move to Pelham from Port Colborne, believes the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League team has a better chance of making a go of it as the lone team playing out of Pelham Arena, which can hold fewer than 500 fans, rather than one of two sharing the 1,700-capacity Vale Centre in Port Colborne.

The move still needs to be endorsed by Pelham town council, which is expected to debate the issue at its next meeting Monday night. The Pirates then would need to negotiate a lease agreement with the municipality.

Pelham Mayor Dave Augustyn, while “hopeful” and “optimistic” that the ice needs of both the Pirates and Pelham Minor Hockey Association can be accommodated, stopped short of calling the relocation a done deal. He said a lot needs to be worked out before a deal can be finalized.

“As is the case with everything, the devil’s in the details. There are a lot of details to be worked out,” the mayor said.

Ample ice team for both junior and minor hockey and large enough dressing rooms aren’t the only issues facing the 39-year-old arena. An inspection conducted last month by Kitchener-based AECOM determined the aging facility has serious problems and estimated repairs to keep the building operating and bringing it up to current fire does could a little more than $1 million.

Councillors also were told by the company the town hired to evaluate the arena that there are safety issues that need to be addressed immediately at the cost of about $2,000.

“There are some life-safety issues that should be addressed as an obligation for the muncipality,” John Stevenson, the president of LeisurePlan International, said in a report to Pelham council earlier this month.

Toffolo’s decision to move a team he has owned since 2002 was prompted by the City of Port Colborne reaching an agreement to allow the expansion Niagara Whalers of the tier 2 junior A Greater Metro Hockey League to use Vale Centre beginning with the 2014-15 season.

Toffolo said Port Colborne’s attendance base is “much too small” to support two junior teams, especially one that isn’t sanctioned by the OHA and isn’t restricted to the number of import players it can have on its roster.

“It would be a very difficult situation to have two teams. The Port Colborne organization just made it by,” Toffolo said in describing the Pirates as a non-profit entity dependent on support from the community.

The Pirates, he said, were already skating on thin ice financially before getting any competition for the hockey dollar at the box office. Attendance over the past four years averaged fewer than 125 fans, a far cry from the 200 that the team owner said is needed per game to break even.

“We were lucky enough we had long playoff runs from three of those years,” he said, adding the increased gate during the post-season was enough to make up for the losses during the regular season.

That wasn’t the case last season when the Pirates finished eighth in the nine-team Golden Horseshoe Conference and were swept by the eventual Sutherland Cup champion Caledonia Corvairs in the first round. As a result, they only hosted two playoff games.

He said attendance below 100 people was commonplace over the fast few seasons.

“Many nights it was a struggle. If just 40 people choose to follow the other team, that would be devastating for us,” he said.

Toffolo said the Pirates warned the City of Port Colborne “right off the bat” they would leave if another junior team received the green light to play home games at Vale Centre.

He also said the municipality never informed the Pirates about the possibility of getting co-tenants in the two-year-old arena.

“We were never consulted. They didn’t think it was any of our business. They wanted to maximize revenue potential.”

Harry Hakim, Port Colborne’s manager of community services, said the municipality was looking forward to having two junior teams playing out of an arena that opened in February with a full house of 1,700, including 500 standees.

“It actually fit in well with our overall plan,” he said, adding that lining up “additional hockey opportunities” was a “smart business move” on the city’s part.

Hakim also said there was “no enroachment” on the Pirates’ facilities, including a dressing room local high school students helped to build.

“We had room for both organizations. We could have facilitated another organization,” he said.

“We’re not happy they’re leaving. That was a decision purely made by the Pirates organization.”

Beamsville and Niagara-on-the-Lake, other “grey areas” currently not within the territory of junior B teams in the regions, were also considered as a new home for the Pirates.

“But the more we looked at Pelham, the more we liked it. The people in Pelham are very supportive. This will give the town something new and give Pelham kids something to aspire to,” Toffolo said.

When contacted, Steve Quinn, the Whalers’ western New York-based owner, had “no comment” on the Pirates’ decision to move.

bernd.franke@sunmedia.ca

Twitter: @TribSportsGuy

GREATER METRO HOCKEY LEAGUE

What: Canadian developmental junior A hockey league not affiliated with the Canadian Junior Hockey League or Hockey Canada
Established: 2006
Goals: “To increase the international flavour of junior hockey in central Canada” and establishing teams in centres “passionate about hosting this new brand of junior hockey.”
Teams: 24, including the Niagara Whalers, who are scheduled to play a 42-game regular season out of Port Colborne’s Vale Health and Wellness Centre beginning with the 2014-15 season

You all know that I am a die-hard Rockets fan, but I am also a die-hard GOJHL fan, having been watching Jr. B hockey since I was 10 years old. I will only watch the GOJHL and during the hockey season, you never know what arena RG is gonna show up at.

I’m bringing you the games, news, and updates of the GOJHL.

RG is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/TheRocketGirl16 and you can find me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/TheRocketGirl16

If you hear of anything about any of the teams in the GOJHL, or have questions about anything, feel free to post it. If I don’t know the answer, I know how to find it.

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