The 2015-16 campaign was the first since the 1980-81 season that Belleville went without its OHL Bulls, but the departure of the major junior franchise has opened the doors for minor pro hockey to make its way to the city.
After much speculation that the Ottawa Senators would be moving their AHL affiliate to Belleville in time for the 2017-18 season, the franchise and the City of Belleville made the move official Monday in an afternoon press conference. The franchise, which will maintain the Senators name in the move north of the border, has spent the past 14 years in Binghamton, N.Y., but the move to Belleville helps the Senators keep up with the growing trend of proximity between NHL and AHL clubs.
"Our city has a long a storied history with junior hockey but today we welcome professional hockey to Belleville and our soon to be renovated Yardmen Arena," said Belleville mayor Taso Christopher in a release. "Our city not only gets an AHL team but an incredible working partnership with the (NHL’s) Ottawa Senators and its long time owner Eugene Melnyk. Geographically, our relative proximity to the nation's capital makes this a tremendously exciting partnership that will undoubtedly bring our cities and our hockey fans together, United in Red."
As part of moving the team to Belleville, Melnyk has purchased the AHL franchise and agreed to an eight-year deal to keep the team in Belleville. The agreement includes $18.5 million in renovations to Yardmen Arena which the city will “immediately undertake” in order to prepare the building for its first venture into pro hockey.
"This community has truly earned the return of hockey and I am committed to making the Belleville Senators an integral part of the city,” Melnyk said in a release. “I want to personally thank the Mayor, Councillors and City staff for their hard work in helping bring the Senators to Belleville. This is the dawn of new era of hockey in Belleville and we are excited to be part of it.”
The Senators’ time in Binghamton has been rather up-and-down, especially over the past few seasons. The club has missed the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, and between 2005-06 and 2009-10 underwent a five-year post-season drought. However, the 2010-11 campaign signalled the end of that tailspin and marked the most successful season in franchise history.
That team, led by Corey Locke, Ryan Potulny and goaltender Robin Lehner and coached by Kurt Kleinendorst, won the Calder Cup, the first in franchise history.
Since that season, though, Binghamton has missed the playoffs three times and been eliminated twice in the first round, both times at the hands of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Thankfully for hockey fans in Binghamton, the Senators’ seemingly won’t signal the end to the AHL in the city. The team’s executive vice president of operations, Tom Mitchell, acknowledged Ottawa’s purchase and relocation of the franchise Monday, but added that “their decision to relocate has no impact on the future of the AHL’s presence in the Southern Tier.”
Mitchell added the organization is taking a “proactive approach,” and will share more details about future plans “at the appropriate time.”
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