City, Steelheads look for lease extension

The Mississauga Steelheads and the City of Mississauga are working toward a deal that will keep the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) team at the Hershey Centre for the next five years.

Although negotiations are ongoing and an agreement has not been locked up, sources say the sides want to make it happen and those involved are officially optimistic. Negotiations have heated up recently as the city has approved a plan that could allow a deal to be brokered before the end of the hockey season.

The current lease between the Steelheads and its municipal landlord expires at season’s end, but both sides are hopeful a new agreement will keep the team on ice through the 2022-2023 hockey season. An extended lease will come as welcome news for fans of the Steelheads who feared the team would head out of town once the current lease ended. With low attendance combined with dwindling media exposure and the fight to stay viable in a market flooded with options, hockey insiders say the team was a candidate to move to another area such as Western New York.

Along with the Raptors 905, the Steelheads are the major tenants at the Hershey Centre with 34 home dates, plus playoffs. Team owner Elliot Kerr stressed the sides are, “not there yet” but acknowledged there has been positive dialogue about a lease extension and he remains optimistic.

“We hope to get something done by the end of the current season,” he told The Review. “The term and the rent factor are key, but there are lots of variables involved.”

Shari Lichterman, city recreation director, said council has given the green-light to hammer out an agreement. She said both sides want to make that happen.

The current lease was a three-year deal, but Lichterman said they are looking at a five-year agreement this time. While no other specific terms were mentioned, she said the lease may be typical to those held in other OHL markets.

“As we get into 2018, hopefully we will have the agreement finalized,” she said. “They are an important tenant to the building.”

The challenges faced by the Steelheads are obvious ones, but not unique to sport teams in the Greater Toronto Area that compete on tiers lower than major professional levels.

Attendance at the 5,000-seat Hershey Centre hovers between the 1,500 to 2,000 range but often appears much lower.

OHL franchises have disappeared in both Brampton and Toronto in recent years as the Steelheads remain the last team in the GTA to bring high calibre junior hockey to the market.

For his part, Kerr admits finding an audience has been tough slugging and he wants to turn it around.

“The reality is we have seen lots of progress. This is year six for us and we still have a long way to go to filling the building,” Kerr said. “We need to see a positive increase for it to work long term. Are we there yet? No. Have we seen positive steps? Yes.”

Kerr said the team faces challenges unlike other OHL markets. Although Mississauga is one of the country’s bigger cities, he points out the lack of a daily newspaper, radio and television stations as a problem for the team.

“All of the other markets have all three and we have none,” he said adding the local media coverage other junior hockey teams receive help greatly with public awareness.

He said the Steelheads engage the community on many fronts with promotions and outreach to schools, minor hockey and corporations in hopes of expanding the brand.

As a long-time Mississauga resident with his businesses located here, Kerr said he wants to make junior hockey work in this market and is doing everything he can to achieve that.

“We are making progress but we have to see more,” he said. “But this is our sixth year and I have been losing money every year. I’m not prepared to do that every year.”

The Hershey Centre has been home to an OHL team since it opened in 1998. The Mississauga IceDogs were the first, followed by Mississauga St. Michael’s Major and, in 2012, the Mississauga Steelheads.

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