Wait almost over in Belleville

by Patrick Williams

More than a year of preparation for the Belleville Senators ends Wednesday when they will host the Syracuse Crunch at sold-out Yardmen Arena.

The Ottawa Senators’ new AHL affiliate relocated to Ontario this past summer, giving the NHL organization its first Canadian AHL affiliate since 1996.

On the ice, a heavily made-over roster led by head coach Kurt Kleinendorst has done its part. The Senators survived a nine-game season-opening road trip with a 4-4-0-1 mark that places them in the thick of the North Division. Wednesday’s game starts a seven-game homestand for the Senators.

Off the ice, it has been non-stop work for months overhauling Yardmen Arena for its first opportunity to host the AHL. More than $18.5 million went into modernizing the facility, bringing its seating capacity to 4,400. Other additions include premium seating, a new refrigeration system to bring the ice surface to NHL-size, renovated dressing rooms, and concourse upgrades.

Belleville sits on the Bay of Quinte near Lake Ontario. The area, which has a population of 92,000, sits 2.5 hours from Ottawa. A direct economic impact of $8 million (all figures Canadian) and an indirect impact of $15-20 million is expected, and the team is also establishing a charitable foundation.

The city housed the Ontario Hockey League for 34 seasons. When the market opened up in 2015 after the OHL’s departure, that presented Ottawa management with an opportunity to join the trend of NHL teams locating their AHL affiliates close to home.

Leading the effort has been chief operating officer Rob Mullowney, who brought a substantial resume with him to Belleville.

Mullowney arrived in Belleville from the St. John’s IceCaps and possessed experience launching an AHL franchise from scratch on a tight timeline. In 2011, the Winnipeg Jets needed a new AHL affiliate on short notice, and Mullowney delivered it to them in four months.

While in St. John’s, Mullowney won the Ken MacKenzie Award, which is presented annually to the AHL’s top marketing executive each season. Before his time in St. John’s, he worked on the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing as well as Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

Since setting up in Belleville, Mullowney’s to-do list has been considerable, starting with the arena project.

“Construction has been at a fever pitch to get the building ready,” Mullowney said. “There has been a lot of time and effort that has gone in to get us here. This has been a fast-track construction project.”

He also had to hire a front office from scratch, set up ticket operations, sell corporate sponsorships, and implement the countless small details that go into an AHL game-night presentation.

“In a lot of ways, it has been good that we’ve been on the road because we’ve been able to get our feet underneath us. It’s all the little details. You can do a lot of work to get prepared, but it always gets down to those finer details.”

Mullowney also has had to sell the AHL’s brand of hockey to a market that had a deep familiarity with the junior hockey experience. To that end, the Senators have set up game-night viewing parties for fans during the October road trip and undertaken an aggressive marketing campaign.

“The community has been fantastic, very receptive. The nice thing about where we are is that hockey matters in Belleville and the Bay of Quinte, so people are supportive and recognizing the players.”

Adding Belleville and the Laval Rocket, the Montreal Canadiens’ new AHL affiliate, this season gives the league the potential of a strong Highway 401 rivalry involving the two clubs as well as the Toronto Marlies.

With a season-opening two-game series at Bell Place in Laval, the Senators-Rocket rivalry is already off to a heated start. But off the ice, relations are much friendlier between Mullowney and Rocket executive Vincent Lucier. Each of them can relate to the experience of building an AHL franchise.

“Whenever we can, we reach out, and we’re all working together,” said Mullowney, who was in attendance at Place Bell to sample Laval’s game-night experience.

A week later, Mullowney was at Giant Center with the team when they took on the Hershey Bears and grabbed their first-ever win. Hershey is in its 80th season, and the Bears are annual attendance leaders with a strong regional marketing approach throughout Central Pennsylvania.

That standard set in Hershey is something to for Mullowney to aim for as the Senators begin to establish roots in Belleville.

“It’s so impressive to think about [the Bears’ 80th anniversary]. To think that the Belleville Senators could even begin to start having the impact that the Hershey Bears have had in their community, it’s almost a daunting thought.”

“But at the same time, I just believe that we can have the same type of impact in our community as they have had in theirs. We can’t wait for opening night because I just think there has been so much excitement around this team and the fact that there is hockey returning to Belleville and the Bay of Quinte.”

“I think the atmosphere will be electric in the building, and the renovation is going to be fantastic.”