A team Toronto forgot: Mississauga Steelheads lost money and personnel, but no hope

At 7:01 p.m., the pregame spectacle reached its crescendo, with the lights dimmed and the arena speakers pounding near full blast. As the lights brightened and the official moved forward to drop the puck, fans tried to make noise, but were drowned out by players banging their sticks against the bench boards.

It was a question of volume: No noise, but attendance.

Dozens of fans were still stuck near the call-up window as the Mississauga Steelheads opened Game 1 of their Ontario Hockey League first-round playoff series with the Barrie Colts. But even when they finally got inside, many sections of the Paramount Fine Foods Center were largely barren.

Based in the league’s second-largest city — a 45-minute drive from the CN Tower at rush hour Friday — the Steelheads have become the team Southern Ontario has forgotten. For 10 years, they often won on the ice while struggling in the stands, finishing last in the OHL standings this year.

Owner Elliott Kerr will reach his 10th anniversary as owner next month and he said he lost nearly $2 million in the first half of his tenure. Many of the challenges the team faced upon taking office are still firmly in place, stubbornly immovable despite their initial (and enduring) optimism.

“I’m not going to back down from the fact that it’s been a challenge all these years,” Kerr said. “All I’m telling you is that we’re moving forward and not backing down. We rise to the challenge. »

According to HockeyDB, the Steelheads averaged 1,413 fans this season, ranking them last out of 20 OHL teams. On average, Mississauga drew 400 fewer fans than the league’s second-worst draw, North Bay. (The London Knights rout the league, with 7,100 spectators per game.)

As the playoffs opened Friday, and with the Leafs and Raptors both inactive — and the Blue Jays out of town — the Steelheads would announce a crowd of 1,504 for Game 1 of the only game in town.

“We still believe in the market,” Kerr said.

The Greater Toronto Area has not been kind to junior hockey this century. The St. Michael’s Majors, an established brand in the heart of the city, moved to Mississauga in 2007 as the OHL embarked on a version of musical chairs with its franchises. (The Majors moved in, while Mississauga’s existing OHL team, the IceDogs, moved on – moving to St. Catharines, Ont.)

In 2012 the Brampton Battalion moved to North Bay. The nearby suburb lost another team during the pandemic, when ECHL’s Brampton Beast folded last year, citing COVID-19-related shutdowns and residual economic uncertainty.

Justin Shugg was a veteran OHL forward when he arrived in Mississauga. He joined the Majors as they prepared to host the Memorial Cup in 2011, a year before Kerr bought the team. The Majors finished first in the league and advanced to face Owen Sound in the Championship Series.

“Owen Sound basically played seven home games,” Shugg said. “There were so many people from Owen Sound who followed the team to Mississauga.”

Mississauga lost Game 7 of this series at home.

“The energy wasn’t there in terms of performing in front of spectators that you knew could change the energy of a building,” said Shugg, who is now 30 and retired from acting.

Dach Hiller served as vice president, chief business operations officer for the Steelheads until the end of the first pandemic year. He still sees potential in the market – from its population to the number of large companies based around the city – but he can also list a list of challenges.

The arena stands in a flowery field of commercial properties, overlooking a major highway and, a little further, Canada’s busiest airport. There are no restaurants or bars within walking distance, and there’s nothing else to capture the imagination.

“It’s not an exciting place to hang out at night,” Hiller said. “You’re going there to watch a hockey game, and that’s all you’re going to do.”

Partly because of its narrow orbit around Toronto, Mississauga does not have its own dedicated television station, nor its own daily newspaper. The city, which has a population of approximately 720,000, has its own radio station, Sauga 960 AM, which has become the team’s broadcast partner.

Hiller said an additional challenge is that residents don’t always identify as being from the city of Mississauga, but rather as belonging to their neighborhoods within the city: Port Credit, Clarkson, Erindale or Lorne Park.

“You don’t have these huge budgets,” he said. “You can’t go out and hire a bunch of community relations people to go and immerse yourself in those different communities and really build those relationships that are necessary if you’re going to have lasting success.”

According to Mike Hastings, team vice president, communications and business operations, the Steelheads have four full-time employees in the front office.

A survey of OHL team websites suggests it is one of the smallest front offices in the league. Several teams list close to a dozen full-time operating employees. (Hastings, in addition to communications and business operations, also oversees gaming operations.)

Kim Grimes is a professor and coordinator of the sports and entertainment program at Loyalist College in Belleville, Ontario. She said she uses the Steelheads as a case study in class.

“I’ll tell you, some of the best salespeople I’ve ever had come from this organization,” she said. “They must be good. They need to challenge themselves to be good.

It can be easier to sell junior hockey in smaller markets, she said, in part because there are fewer people to contact. In a bigger market, there are more phone calls to be made.

“You need vendors to sell tickets,” she said. “Who else is going to do it?” You can’t just put it on Ticketmaster. The day for that is over. We’re not going to sit there and say, “Here’s my storefront – come buy from me.”

“It does not work like that.”

Attendance has been a constant challenge for the Mississauga Steelheads. (Sean Fitz-Gerald / The Athletic)

Hastings, who became vice president last year, said like others in the league, the front office suffered layoffs during the pandemic-related shutdown. He was one of those job cuts, but came back to the team because “I like what I do and I wanted to get back to it”.

In addition to its four full-time employees, Mississauga usually has six or seven interns in the office.

“We rely on them a lot to help us run game days, as well as help with ticket sales and on the communications side, through our social media,” Hastings said. “The show really doesn’t run without them.”

On April 9, the Steelheads announced a crowd of over 5,000 for their game against the Kingston Frontenacs, which was their annual fan appreciation game. Mississauga also has fans across the league for her TikTok account, which has 35,000 followers.

“We are extremely happy with the experience we are providing,” Hastings said. “And we think when people walk into the building and see what it looks like, they’ll be excited to come back.”

The Steelheads only missed the playoffs once during Kerr’s decade of ownership. Players have on-site access to a sauna and cold tub and play in a modern arena while living close to Canada’s most populous city and its diverse entertainment options.

It’s been suggested that Mississauga might be one of the best places to play in Ontario, if only there were fans in the arena.

In 2018, while negotiating with the city for a new arena lease, Kerr said he would evaluate options regarding selling or moving the team. It would be a last resort, he said at the time, but added that his losses in his first six years in charge were “over $2 million”.

Speaking on the phone ahead of Game 1 against Barrie, Kerr said he couldn’t remember the number.

“Were there any losses? Yes,” he said. “At no point did I say we had to cut staff for this to work. You have to be constantly aggressive in the market, and you only do that with strong people – you can’t cut that.

Mississauga took an aggressive lead on the ice against Barrie in Game 1, outscoring the visitors 39-26, but lost 2-1 in overtime. Fans marched through the darkness of the suburbs, and many of those who stayed to linger in the arena lobby were wearing Colts jerseys.

“Ultimately, these challenges will never go away,” Kerr said. “We never give up working with the challenge of dealing with this.”

(Top photo of Mississauga’s Luca Del Bel Belluz taken earlier this season: Chris Tanouye/Getty Images)