Abitibi Eskimos relocating to Timmins

TIMMINS - The Eskimos are vacating their igloo in favour of the friendly confines of Timmins’ historic McIntyre Arena.

Rumoured since Resolute Forest Products announced that it was closing its paper mill in Iroquois Falls, representatives of the Abitibi Eskimos officially announced during an Iroquois Falls town council meeting and then later at a Timmins city council meeting Tuesday that the Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League franchise will be relocating in time for the start of the 2015-16 season.

“We are moving from a market of 4,500 people to a market of 45,000, so from a business sense, you look at those numbers and say we should easily be able to draw 1,000 fans per game,” said Eskimos president Scott Marshall.

“It is going to depend on the people of Timmins. We have had people tell us that it won’t work in Timmins. It didn’t work before, but we strongly believe it is going to work.

“We believe the people of Timmins are ready for the return of Junior ‘A’ hockey.”

Timmins has been without a Junior ‘A’ hockey franchise since the Golden Bears left following the 1998-99 season to set up shop at the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls and operate as the Eskimos.

It is unlikely that the team that plays out of the McIntyre Arena next season will be known as either the Eskimos or the Golden Bears, however.

“The name hasn’t been determined yet,” Marshall said. “Once we have the approval of city council in principal, one of the first things we intend on doing is approaching some major sponsors that may have interest in naming rights. We will see where those discussions go, but we will be changing the branding of the team.”

Marshall didn’t rule out having some kind of contest to select a new name for the team, either.

“It will depend,” he said. “If we have discussions with a potential major sponsor that has a particular name in mind and we are okay with the name, we may go that route.”

The Eskimos board of directors was not eager to leave Iroquois Falls, a community that has supported the franchise since the 1999-00 season, but they didn’t see any other choice.

“These are not good times for Iroquois Falls,” Marshall said. “I know that people are optimistic that things are going to happen, but as a hockey team we have to look at what’s on the table now. What are the existing economic conditions?

“The closure of Resolute has already impacted the hockey team. We had sponsors that were only involved with the hockey team because of their involvement with Resolute Forest Products that have withdrawn their support.

“Our program right now is just not viable in the Iroquois Falls marketplace. It just is not. That is just the bitter truth.

“We are not happy about this, but one of the reasons we are making the announcement now is so that if somebody believes they can fill the void with something else, it gives them time to get that done.”

Even prior to Resolute’s announcement that it was going to close its Iroquois Falls paper mill, the Eskimos on average were drawing between 100 and 150 more people for games in Timmins than at the Jus Jordan Arena.

“That would be pretty close,” Marshall said. “Mind you, we do get a lot of Iroquois Falls people at those games, as we get Timmins people attending games at the Jus Jordan Arena.”

While there previously had in the past been rumours of the Eskimos being sold and moved to Timmins, the franchise will continue to operate as a non-profit entity, with its current board of directors — although Marshall indicated the board might be expanded to include a few more city residents.

“We will simply be playing out of a different venue. Instead of playing out of the Jus Jordan Arena, we will be playing out of the Mac,” he said. “We will have the exact same structure.”

Eskimos officials have been working behind the scenes on the possible relocation of the franchise since shortly after the Resolute announcement was made.

“We have been in discussion with the city staff since mid-December, developing this proposal,” Marshall said. “The proposal includes quite a number of improvements to the Mac to facilitate Junior ‘A’ hockey.”

The improvements call for a dedicated change room to accommodate 25 player stalls and shower facilities, dedicated office space at the arena (perhaps the Fred Salvador Room), a ticket booth to be located in the main entrance foyer to facilitate two streams of spectators, the removal of the portable portion of the gondola constructed for the U-17 tournament to help restore sight lines, relocation of the shot clock (not currently in use) from the Archie Dillon Sportsplex to the Mac, high-speed Internet access, removal of the spectator netting from both sides of the arena, maintaining snow removal from the back parking lot and re-instalation of heating in the main entrance of the arena.

After playing five games at the McIntyre Arena during the 2013-14 regular season, the Eskimos opted to play four of their five regular-season home dates this year out of the Archie Dillon Sportsplex.

“We have tried out both of the facilities to get a feel for what we feel would be the best (home for the franchise) and the Mac feels more like a hockey arena,” Marshall said.

“The biggest advantages are the size of the venue (seating capacity) and also the parking, once the back is open. We also believe it is a better location geographically for our fans and you have the food service (McIntyre Coffee Shop) there, which is just outstanding.”

Renting the McIntyre Arena will cost the Junior ‘A’ squad a little bit more than the Eskimos were paying at the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls.

“It is not going to be a major impact, but we intend to use a lot more ice time with all the players being in the same community,” Marshall said.

He does not anticipate the move to Timmins will have a major impact on the team’s budget, in terms of transporting players to and from Iroquois Falls for practices and games, but he said there will be other positives.

“From a player perspective, it will be a better experience,” he said. “For our post-secondary students to go to practices now is like a four-and-a-half hour ordeal. We will be able to practise at times that are better for their education. The plan is to have a daily practice from 3 to 4:30 p.m. To come to the Jus Jordan Arena for a 7 p.m. practice, they get into the team van at 5:30 p.m., have their practice and then at 8:30 p.m. having another hour drive home after their shower back to Timmins.

“It will result in a better quality of life for our post-secondary students, for sure, and it will be better from a team perspective in that it will be much easier for the team to do things together, whether it is participating in a community event or just going to the show.

“Not having the team have a split residence will have many benefits, even in terms of having an off-ice structured program. Having everybody be in the same community is going to be a big plus.”

Marshall feels it will be easier to recruit players from outside areas to Timmins than it was in Iroquois Falls.

“Whether or not that will prove to be the case, time will tell,” he said.