It is easy with the benefit of hindsight to look at the former Copps Coliseum as a white elephant, and wonder why Hamilton ever built it in the first place. The arena was recently the subject of an unflattering assessment by the Memorial Cup selection team as they rejected Hamilton’s bid to host next year’s Junior Hockey showcase. The selection team cited malfunctioning elevator and escalator, climate control issues and lack of a high-definition scoreboard as not providing a proper environment for the games. It is the latest setback for Hamilton as the hopes of an NHL franchise that burned brightly back in 1986 when the arena opened as Copps Coliseum, have been pretty much snuffed out.
But the idea of an NHL sized arena in Hamilton was far from crazy when the facility opened 30 odd years ago. It had been seven years since the NHL had expanded by absorbing what was left of the old WHA, and there were strong prospects that another round of expansion was just around the corner. In addition Hamilton had an ally of sorts in Harold Ballard, owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who also at that time was owner of the Hamilton Tiger Cats. Ballard said he would waive his territorial rights should Hamilton obtain an NHL team in exchange for a new stadium for the TiCats. Also remember, that incredible as it may seem in today’s world of sports $500 Million stadia and arenas, that Copps was built for just over $40 Million dollars, which allowing for inflation, would only be about $80 million in today’s funds. Heck of a bargain when you consider that according to news reports, the cheapest option for fixing up Copps today is $70 Million and could go as high as $250 million to bring it up to an NHL standard.
With the death of Ballard in 1990, Hamilton’s best connection with the NHL was gone, and with the 1993 installation of Gary Bettman as NHL president, whose mandate was mainly expansion into US markets, the dream pretty much dried up. Nothing is impossible of course—another billionaire like Jim Balsillie could pop up with enough money to pull it all together, but that is likely what would be needed—somebody with money to burn and the ability to compensate both Toronto and Buffalo. Meanwhile a cash-strapped Hamilton council will get its first look later this month at the long-mooted consultant’s report on future options for the facility. The price tag options are not attractive.