Leiweke says hockey will be focus of Hamilton’s $300M renovated arena — but not NHL

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Tim Leiweke promises to bring back a hockey team to Hamilton in a couple of years to a revamped FirstOntario Centre, just not an NHL franchise.

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The former Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment CEO and president, now CEO of Oak View Group, visited Hamilton on Thursday to update the privately funded $300-million renovation plan for the 38-year-old sports arena.

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Leiweke’s OVG oversaw the recent $700-million renovation of Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena, home of the NHL’s Kraken and the $1-billion UBS Arena for the New York Islanders.

“This isn’t about the NHL,” Leiweke said. “I’ve made that very clear. There isn’t an NHL team coming here right now. But realistically, there has been an AHL team that has had great success here.

“There is a history in this marketplace with hockey, and it deserves a franchise with the Hamilton name on its chest.”

Another possibility is the return of a major junior team. With renovations expected to be completed by the fall of 2025, the Bulldogs moved to Brantford for the next three years. The OHL franchise has an option to extend that stay in Wayne Gretzky’s hometown.

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OVG has enjoyed recent success with the Coachella Valley Firebirds, the AHL affiliate of the Kraken, and their new building, Acrisure Arena near Palm Springs, Calif.

The Firebirds were seventh in league attendance in their inaugural 2022-23 season with an average crowd of 7,748, and they hope to host the 2025 AHL all-star game.

The FirstOntario Centre remains open. There will be some Grey Cup festivities later this month. The National Lacrosse League’s Toronto Rock will begin their schedule in the Hamilton arena.

Leiweke and the Hamilton Urban Precinct Entertainment Group also aim to create a premier concert venue and a focal point for downtown rejuvenation in the Steel City.

Leiweke has crunched the numbers and says 2.5 million people in the Golden Horseshoe area live closer to the FirstOntario Centre than Scotiabank Arena in Toronto or the KeyBank Center in Buffalo.

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“I personally think that when you have 8 1/2 million people in a metropolitan area, and there is a strain on the Scotiabank Arena, there is a need to create a secondary market, especially in the south where there is a market for hockey and music,” Leiweke said.

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“We’re neighbours with Scotiabank. We can complement Scotiabank. We’re not necessarily competitors. But we can offer a better schedule because we don’t have the wear and tear.

“We’re very bullish on this marketplace. We’re very bullish on the renovation and rejuvenation of downtown Hamilton, and we’re very bullish on the political leadership having that same passion for that vision.”

Leiweke’s partner with OVG is longtime music executive Irving Azoff. He will play a significant role in turning the Hamilton venue into a concert destination for popular acts with good acoustics.

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“Having his influence is so important,” Leiweke said. “We want to consider the artist’s influence on 19,000 people to maximize their dollars.

“This arena has a lot of space, but it is bland. The bowl is not the problem here. We have to create some warmness.”

Ideally, OVG wants to reconnect the arena to Jackson Square mall. He also wants to construct a restaurant as a cornerstone piece for the arena that will be open daily, whether or not there is an event at the FirstOntario Centre.

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The arena, formerly known as Copps Coliseum, opened its doors in 1985. Its first big event was the 1986 World Junior Hockey Championship.

Mario Lemieux scored his classic goal on a pass from Gretzky there to give Canada its win against Russia in the 1987 Canada Cup. Canada clinched another Canada Cup title at Copps four years later.

The Hamilton Bulldogs won the 2006-07 AHL Calder Cup, and the OHL Bulldogs were league champions in 2017-18 and again in 2021-22.

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