Hockey is coming to back to Belleville – and in a big way.
Belleville Mayor Taso Christopher and Ottawa Senator’s owner Eugene Melnyk announced at a media conference on Sept. 26th that the American Hockey League Belleville Senators will begin playing in a completely upgraded Yardmen Arena starting in the 2017-18 season.
The Senators are relocating their top farm team from Binghamton, NY to Belleville and the City and the Senators couldn’t be happier about their new partnership.
“It’s a monumental day for the City of Belleville and the Bay of Quinte region,” Mayor Christopher said at the official announcement in front of a full house at the Quinte Sports and Wellness Centre. “The Belleville Senators will quickly become one of the premiere franchises in the American Hockey League and will fast become the pride of Belleville and Eastern Ontario.
“This is your team and we’re very confident that you’re going to support it.”
Melnyk will also own the Belleville Senators and says that this community is a perfect fit for the team and the AHL. Melnyk previously owned the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors in the Ontario Hockey League and fondly remembers coming to Belleville for spirited playoff games. The hockey fans in the Quinte region left an impression on the team owner and he’s looking forward to being the “home team” in Belleville now.
“Hockey is really back here in Belleville and we could not be honoured more,” Melnyk said. “Today is a huge day for us, the City of Belleville and all the hockey fans in the region. It’s the beginning of a whole new era.”
The immediate response from the community proves that Melnyk is right. Nearly 500 people packed the main lobby of the Quinte Sports and Wellness Centre for the historic announcement and within 24 hours of the announcement, more than 1,000 people had put down deposits on season tickets.
“This is Day One, the dawn of a new era of hockey in Belleville,” Melnyk said. “From this point forward, we’ll be extremely busy making the Belleville Senators an integral part of your city.”
Fans that want to secure their priority spot in line to order season tickets for the inaugural season can do so with a $100 deposit. Please visit www.bellevillesens.com for more information.
The City fielded many requests and offers from nearly every level of hockey prompting Mayor Christopher to create an implementation team that also included councillors Garnet Thompson and Mike Graham.
The Mayor’s team began discussions with the Ottawa Senators about relocating their top development team to the Yardmen Arena nearly a year ago.
The City was insistent on finding a partner that was only interested in a long-term commitment to the City of Belleville. The partnership with Melnyk and the Belleville Senators is signed to an unprecedented eight-year agreement with a five-year renewal option. That ensures that the Yardmen Arena will be the home of the Belleville Senators and the American Hockey League for the foreseeable future.
“The partnership and opportunity is the result of many, many long hours, days, late evenings and early mornings to make sure that this agreement became a reality for the long-term future of Belleville,” Christopher said.
Mark Fluhrer, the Director of Recreation, Culture and Community Services, was a key part of the negotiating team that brought the Senators to Belleville.
“He took the reigns and wouldn’t let them go,” Christopher said. “This gentleman represents the corporation and our fellow staff to a level that we have never seen.”
Melnyk said that he has been impressed with the commitment that the Mayor, Council and Fluhrer made to ensure that the Senators came to Belleville and would stay for a long time.
“It’s rare that you meet such a dedicated group of people that are completely focused on their community and want to do the best for you,” Melnyk said. “These are the type of mayors and councillors that we love to see because they help us help them and it works as a partnership. I want to thank them for everything they’ve done to make this happen.”
Rumours of the Senators moving their AHL team to Belleville started to surface last spring. The close proximity to the nation’s capital was just one of many reasons that the Senators were attracted to Belleville.
“I was intrigued by the idea and reached out to our management group and I reached out to people in the AHL that I respect,” said Ottawa Senators Assistant General Manager Randy Lee. “Both groups came back and said that Belleville makes perfect sense for us on so many levels. Last fall, I met Mayor Christopher and his staff here in Belleville. After seeing their passion and the vision they had for hockey, I knew that it was something that we should pursue.”
Belleville’s Yardmen Arena will undergo a full renovation and upgrade over the next 12 months to increase the seating, provide updated amenities to the fans and bring the playing surface and dressing room facilities up to NHL and AHL standards. There will be new sections of seating at the north end of the arena as well as around the new NHL regulation sized ice surface.
Fans will enjoy updated concessions and suites as well as a new video score board when the Senators hit the ice for the first time next fall.
“The newly renovated Yardmen Arena will be a beautiful compliment to our Quinte Sports and Wellness Centre,” Christopher said. “It will be brought up to NHL and AHL standards and will be the envy of the league across the nation.”
The American Hockey League is the top development league in the world for players, coaches and officials. Nearly 90% of today’s NHL players played in the AHL. Players on the Senators’ AHL team last season ranged from 21 to 30 years old. The Ottawa Senators current roster is full of AHL graduates including captain Erik Karlsson, Chris Neil, Cody Ceci, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Mark Stone.
“Every single one of those players have been drafted and are elite enough that they are already on a team,” Melnyk said. “Many of them were captains or assistant captains of their junior teams. You’re going to see the future hall of famers and the future all-stars of the NHL. They’re all trying to get a job in the big leagues.”
Lee will oversee the hockey operations of the Belleville Senators and said that hockey fans in Belleville are in for a treat when the AHL arrives.
“From a hockey operations perspective, it’s ideal that the owner of the NHL team owns the AHL team,” Lee said. “From a Belleville Senators’ fan perspective, it’s perfect. I can speak from experience that Mr. Melnyk is a fan first and an owner second.
“We feel very fortunate to be able to call Belleville our home for many years to come.”
After months of negotiations, high level hockey is back in Belleville. And from all accounts, it looks like it’s back for good.
“I am so proud to be the Mayor of this great city as we embark on a new venture that is monumental for our entire city, our families and the region,” Christopher said. “This is an exciting day and an exciting future for the city of Belleville.”
Sidebar: Belleville’s Hockey History
When the Ottawa Senators announced that they were moving their American Hockey League affiliate to Belleville for the 2017-18 season, team owner Eugene Melnyk said that Belleville’s hockey history had a lot to do with his decision.
He visited Belleville many times when he owned the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors in the Ontario Hockey League. He witnessed our passion for the game first-hand and said that he is looking forward to sparking that passion again next fall.
“You’ve got a great, deep history of hockey here and it’s just great to have it all come back,” Melnyk said.
Belleville native Marc Crawford is the associate coach of the Ottawa Senators and will be the liaison with the AHL team in Belleville. It’s fitting that the Crawford name will once again be connected to our hockey history.
Marc Crawford’s father Floyd was the captain of the Belleville McFarlands team that first put Belleville on the hockey map when they won the Canadian hockey championship in 1958 and then the World Championship the following year.
Four decades later, Marc’s brother Lou was behind the bench when the Belleville Bulls won their only Ontario Hockey League championship in 1999.
From the senior McFarlands to the junior Bobcats and 34 years with the Bulls, the City of Belleville has a rich hockey history.
This newest chapter may just be the best.
From Belleville Magazine (printed 2017)