The untold story of how Hamilton almost landed an NHL team

Like all great writing, Spectator writer Jon Wells’ piece the other day about the wild year that was 1997 in Hamilton spurred a conversation. In this case, a little reflection about our last bid for an NHL expansion team.

While pondering how different this city would be today if the hunt had been successful — answer: very — while also suspecting it was never really going to happen, one of the men most connected to our attempts to lure a team dropped a stunner.

Eleven years earlier, a franchise had quietly been hand-delivered to Hamilton, Gabe Macaluso said. All that was needed was to negotiate an arena lease and this city was back in the bigs.

Um, what?

“I haven’t spoken to anyone (about this),” Macaluso says. “Now you’re hearing it.”

The story he tells goes like this. In 1986, he was head of tourism. One morning he got a call from mayor Bob Morrow telling him to come to his office right away. When he arrived, two men were sitting there.

Bill Ballard and Michael Cohl.

The two ran Concert Productions International. They were the kings of entertainment in southern Ontario and titans across North America. Macaluso heard them say they had just put in a conditional offer to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Then came the words that really got his attention.

“(Ballard) says, ‘We’re moving the team to Hamilton.'”

An intrigued Macaluso kept listening.

“We want to negotiate a favorable long-term lease for Copps Coliseum,” Ballard continued.

A report in Toronto the year before had quoted Ballard as saying exactly all this, but most seemed to blow it off as merely a rumor. Suddenly, it appeared incredibly real.

Then came the exclamation point. Macaluso says he listened as Ballard outlined how his father — Toronto Maple Leafs’ owner Harold Ballard — was willing to waive his territorial rights in exchange for a couple of concessions. He wanted the city to retrofit the dressing rooms at Ivor Wynne Stadium for his beloved Hamilton Tiger-Cats and he wanted synthetic grass installed on the field.

That’s it? Could this possibly be true?

“Absolutely correct,” says Brian Conacher, who was executive director of the Hamilton Entertainment and Convention Facilities Inc. (HECFI), the organization that ran Copps Coliseum.

Wait, all these years of chasing a team and it was that close? We basically had one? And not just any team, but one that had a second-year player named Mario Lemieux on the roster? Not to mention five Stanley Cups and a guy named Sidney Crosby in his future? We simply needed to usher it through the door?

What the heck happened?

First, Macaluso says, a city councilor he won’t name (since the person is now dead) basically told Ballard to shove it. The city wasn’t paying for any of this and he’d fight to make sure of it.

Then came the arena negotiations. Macaluso says Conacher drove a hard bargain. Too hard, in retrospect.

“That is true,” Conacher says.

Not the part about being too hard. He doesn’t agree with that. But definitely about being tough.

He says Ballard and Cohl wanted to use the building rent-free, wanted exclusive concert rights — a problem since HECFI dealt with other promoters, too — and other things. Meaning the city would’ve been giving them a brand-new $41-million arena for almost nothing. He’d been hired to run a user-pay building, not one subsidized by the public, so it was an impossible ask.

“They weren’t happy and they probably thought I was a jerk,” he says. “And I knew them (Conacher had known the Ballard family for years as a Toronto Marlboro and then a Maple Leaf and because his family had a cottage near theirs) but it was a business.”

Looking back, does he regret it?

He answers with a reminder that he was responsible for protecting the interests of the citizens. If there was no revenue being generated for the city because every money-making opportunity had been signed away, the huge costs to run the place would’ve fallen on taxpayers who were already being tapped for the arena.

Long story short, Macaluso says he got a call from the mayor not long after that first meeting telling him the two promoters were “disgusted” with the negotiations. When it became apparent the two sides couldn’t agree, Ballard told Morrow the idea was dead. Then he and Cohl walked out the door and the would-be Hamilton Penguins went with them.

“So that was that,” Macaluso says, rather ruefully. “That was the best opportunity we ever had for getting an NHL team.”

He might well be correct. Sure sounds like it.

But hold on for one second.

Conacher has real doubts this was ever going to happen no matter what deal he offered. To this day he’s sure Hamilton was just being used as a pawn to squeeze a better deal out of Pittsburgh. It wouldn’t be the last time we were used as leverage by teams reworking a lease in their home city to get a sweeter deal.

He believes the other steel city would’ve ultimately come up with some concessions that would’ve kept them in town.

“Could they have delivered the Pittsburgh Penguins?” Conacher asks. “Being a realist not a speculator, I’m doubtful.”

Further, he says the Buffalo Sabers were adamantly against the idea since thousands of their season tickets were held by Canadians and those fans might have chosen to put their money in Hamilton instead. The NHL wasn’t at its strongest point then and the thought of solving one problem while creating another might’ve been enough to convince the other owners to block it. So it was no sure thing.

Macaluso vigorously disagrees. He absolutely believes it was real.

Why is he so sure?

“Every time Ballard saw me (until his death in 2014) he said, ‘You could’ve had a team.'”

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