The junior hockey world was shocked when the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs owner Michael Andlauer sold the team to the parent Montreal Canadiens and abruptly turned around and purchased the Belleville Bulls, moving them to Hamilton. The writing was on the wall for the Bulldogs with AHL franchises moving left and right with the creation of the Pacific Division and a long-standing rumour that the Canadiens would soon move their AHL affiliate to a brand new arena in Laval, Quebec. Temporarily, the Canadiens have moved their AHL affiliate to St. John’s, Newfoundland. The Belleville Bulls were members of the OHL since 1981 and were not perceived to be in any apparent danger. Nonetheless, the move sent shockwaves through the league and announced the return of Hamilton to junior hockey.
Hamilton has had a bit of a checkered past with the OHL. Both the Hamilton Steelhawks and the Hamilton Dukes were fairly significant failures in the Steel City. The Dukes even have the dubious distinction of being removed as the host team for the 1990 Memorial Cup due to their poor performance during the season. However, after the AHL movements the end result is a return for Hamilton to the OHL for another kick at the can. This time, they have a well-established brand complete with logos and trademarks.
The Victor K. Copps Memorial Coliseum was originally built in the mid-eighties with the purpose of luring an NHL expansion team. However, a persistent rumour that the Buffalo Sabres did everything within their power to block Hamilton’s bid remains, and history tells us that it was the Ottawa Senators that were eventually successful bidders. The Coliseum has also been the centrepiece of former BlackBerry CEO Jim Balsillie's failed attempts to lure the Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators and Arizona Coyotes to Ontario. Originally named after longtime former mayor Victor Copps, the City of Hamilton owned Coliseum would eventually sell their naming rights to FirstOntario Credit Union. The Coliseum would be officially renamed the FirstOntario Centre in Honour of Victor K. Copps.
Many questions remain for the new Bulldogs in Hamilton, but the OHL and parent Canadian Hockey League are different leagues since Hamilton last had a team. NHL sized arenas do exist in very successful markets like Edmonton, Vancouver, Calgary, Quebec City and Saskatoon. Success for the Bulldogs is not out of the question, but there will no doubt be some growing pains repatriating an AHL market back to the OHL. Time will tell if the new dog will stick around the old pound.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The concession options at the FirstOntario Centre are pretty good and may even be a pleasant surprise.
There are a number of concession stands in the FirstOntario Centre. Regular stands carry all of the expected arena foods. Hot dogs ($4.42), sausages ($5.53), popcorn ($4.87), pretzels, chicken fingers, fries, nachos, chocolate bars and candy are all available. The Pizza Pizza stand offers slices for $4.42. There are also a couple of more unique stands that patrons should consider. The Lou's BBQ offers a variety of BBQ favorites including Pork Button Bones and Shaved Roast Beef Sandwiches. The Candy Counter has a whole host of confection items and Cin City Donuts offers warm cinnamon donuts. The Maple Lodge Farms stand has a variety of chicken options including chicken hot dogs. Finally, the Hot Dog Hut offers a variety of gourmet hot dog options.
The Dawg House might be the best spot to find a beverage. If you are interested in beer, you will find tallboys for either $9.75 or $10.25. Molson Canadian, Coors Light, Coors Banquet, Heineken and Rickard's Red are all available. Other alcoholic beverages are also available including coolers, wine and some mixed drinks. If you are looking for non-alcoholic options, soda options include Pepsi products ($3.76). Water, coffee, cappuccino and hot chocolate are also all available.
The quality of concession items is pretty decent. You may want to try the Hot Dog Hut's French Onion Dog for something a little bit different.
The atmosphere at the FirstOntario Centre is a little hit and miss.
The exterior of the FirstOntario Centre is nothing spectacular. Built in 1985, it bears the architecture of the time when natural light was not a high priority. It is in that bad timeframe where it is too new to be classic, yet too old to be modern. The white siding on the exterior is not a total eyesore, but it definitely looks dated, similar to Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
The interior is a little better, still dated as the lack of natural light remains an issue. Upon entry, patrons are required to ascend the stairs to the concourse level, where they are greeted with fairly wide concourses. The Dawg House is a pretty good meeting place, and a decent place to enjoy some food or a drink and some live music before the game starts. The concourses are decorated with banners advertising current Bulldog players. Above the entrances to the seating bowl are murals showcasing moments in Copps Coliseum / FirstOntario Centre history, the foremost of this is the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs and their 2007 Calder Cup victory. The concourse is also semi-open concept with a heavy use of drapes that are closed when the game is proceeding. Gibson's Club Lounge & Restaurant may be an alternative eating venue that you may be interested in trying if you are looking for some alternative seating and eating options. The seating bowl inside the FirstOntario Centre has the upper deck draped off in an attempt to offer a more intimate experience. The banners for the AHL Championship teams have been removed and all that remains from the old Bulldogs is the three-dimensional, flaming Bulldogs sign in the east end. The arena is east-west configuration.
The in game promotions are about what you would expect for an OHL game. The FirstOntario Centre has a 360 degree ribbon board and decent video board which they make good use of. The team is led onto the ice by some youngsters carrying flags and the Bulldogs mascot, Bruiser, makes his presence known throughout the game. The Bulldogs are one of the few hockey teams that employ a dance team and they can be found throughout the arena at various times. When the Bulldogs score a goal then the three-dimensional sign lights up with flames to celebrate the goal.
The seats in the FirstOntario Centre are thankfully not the originals in the lower bowl. The blue cushioned seats are comfortable and offer great sightlines. However, the upper bowl still features the original, hideous yellow, orange and purple seats, which should be the main reason for keeping the upper deck curtains closed. The drapes remain open for the singing of the national anthem, which is often done from the east end, upper deck, and for the spotlights for the beginning of the game. Thankfully, then the curtains are closed. The ice surface is an east-west configuration, and the north side of the arena will offer you the correct visual orientation of the logo. The corners offer great views at a bit of a lower price, but there are few seats in the lower bowl that are not great selections for the game.
The FirstOntario Centre is located in downtown Hamilton and offers some decent selections for pre- and post-game options.
There are a number of fast food restaurants on York Boulevard and King Street. Some options include A&W, Subway and Swiss Chalet. Some more original options in the immediate area include The Works Gourmet Burger Bistro and The George Hamilton. Another solid idea would be to hit Hess Village a couple blocks southwest of the arena. There you will find a whole host of restaurants and nightlife. The Gown & Gavel and Sizzle Steak House are pretty good selections.
Hamilton offers a few other sporting options, including the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL. The Tiger-Cats play at the brand new Tim Hortons Field, significantly east of downtown. McMaster University is also located in Hamilton. There, the Marauders field a number of athletic teams, most notably in football and basketball. If you are a football historian, then you may want to check out the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and Museum which is 2 blocks south of the arena. Immediately north of the hall of fame is Hamilton Place, which is the city's main concert hall.
There are a couple of hotels in the downtown Hamilton area. The Sheraton Hamilton is immediately south of the arena and a good choice if you are remaining in the city.
The Bulldogs are attempting to re-educate the Hamilton community on the value of junior hockey.
In their first season in the OHL, the Bulldogs are averaging under 3,000 fans per game. This puts them 14th in the league, which is the bottom third. As compared, they are bringing in approximately 500 more fans per game than the Belleville Bulls did, but almost 1,500 fewer fans per game than the AHL Bulldogs did. With a lower bowl that holds around 9,000 fans, the Bulldogs have a long way to go to have the fans play a significant part in the game and follow the lead of some of the more successful clubs with professional sized arenas.
The fans that are in the stands are what you would expect from a Southern Ontario crowd. They are fairly quiet throughout the game, but make some noise and get boisterous when the time is right.
Getting in and around the FirstOntario Centre is not too bad, and aided by the majority of games not being near capacity.
The FirstOntario Centre is located right in the centre of downtown Hamilton. It is south of the lake and a couple blocks east of highway 403. It is also a little bit north of the Lincoln Alexander Parkway so it is fairly close to major Hamilton highways. Downtown Hamilton features 2 main, one-way streets, King and Main, and the arena is located immediately north of them. Therefore, getting to the FirstOntario Centre is not difficult at all.
Just southeast of the FirstOntario Centre is the Hamilton GO Centre, which offers GO Transit service between Hamilton and other nearby cities including Toronto. There are also numerous HSR transit stops on York Blvd, directly in front of the arena, not to mention stops on King and Main. Check the GO Transit and HSR websites for schedules and maps.
There are a few surface parking lots in the immediate area surrounding the FirstOntario Centre. Game day parking can be found for $3 directly across from the arena. Patrons who are driving will not have a problem finding cheap parking.
With the lower bowl of the FirstOntario Centre built to hold over 9,000 fans, getting around the arena with the crowds that are in attendance is absolutely no problem. The concourses are sufficiently wide and the washroom facilities are more than adequate to accommodate the number of fans that are there for the game. The ticketing windows are at street level and feature memorials for Victor Copps. There are flights of stairs up to the concourse level.
Hamilton Bulldogs hockey and OHL hockey in general is a sound investment for your entertainment dollar. Tickets for the Bulldogs go for $29, $23, or $20, which is what is to be expected for the league. Parking is pretty cheap and concession prices are decent as well. The product on the ice is fantastic from a league perspective, fast-paced and exciting. Overall, the Hamilton Bulldogs are a great night's entertainment for the entire family without having to worry about dropping the kids' college fund. Better fan support would make the experience even more exciting. Hopefully the Bulldogs will build towards that exciting fan atmosphere.
An extra mark for the collectibles table in the concourse. A huge variety of hockey cards and memorabilia are available for sale each game. It's a great way to get the kids even more interested in hockey.
An extra mark for the Bulldogs hanging on to the trademarks and logos from the AHL team. This has given the Bulldogs the opportunity to continue with a brand that is familiar and embraced by the Hamilton community.
In their first season in the OHL, the Hamilton Bulldogs are continuing to solidify their place in the Hamilton sports market. Having to re-educate the Hamilton market on junior hockey has not been the easiest of tasks and attendance is not where the Bulldogs would have hoped it would be. However, Hamilton is an important market in Ontario, and has been without junior hockey for far too long. The Bulldogs are continuing to put a strong product on the ice, and are hoping that they will continue to see growth. The new dogs in the old pound might just make it.
The dream of NHL hockey in Hamilton, Ontario seemed to come to the forefront in 1983 with the conception of the Victor K. Copps Trade Centre and Arena. Copps Coliseum, as it became to be known, was to become the centrepiece of a revitalization of Hamilton and the ticket to NHL hockey in Steeltown. Unfortunately for hockey fans in Hamilton, the city was passed over in expansion for, most notably, Ottawa, Ontario. Rumours persist that any move to Hamilton for the NHL would be blocked by the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres. There is a widely believed story that former Sabres owner Seymour Knox said that an NHL team would come to Hamilton over his dead body.
The arena that was named after long-time Hamilton Mayor Victor Copps became home to various levels of hockey, most notably the OHL and AHL. The current incarnation of hockey in Hamilton is the AHL's Hamilton Bulldogs. The Bulldogs have a good affiliation agreement with the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens remain a fairly popular team in Ontario, and the Bulldogs reap the rewards of that relationship, grooming future players for the winningest team in NHL history.
With the 1996 founding of the Bulldogs as the Edmonton Oilers affiliate, Hamilton has seen a fairly successful run for hockey, culminating in a Calder Cup Championship in 2007. Hamilton and Copps have remained at the centre of NHL expansion controversy with it being used as a possible relocation destination for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators and Buffalo Sabres over the years. The latest word on the hockey front in Hamilton is that there is a distinct possibility that the Bulldogs will leave. A new arena in Laval, Quebec could be the destination for the Bulldogs if the Canadiens wish for their farm team to be closer. There have also been rumours of the OHL returning to Hamilton. Any way you slice it, the future of hockey in Hamilton is up in the air, but not for a lack of suitors.
152 King St. W.
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