On paper, Mississauga looks like a great hockey market. The Toronto suburb has a population comparable to Winnipeg's, scores of corporate offices and an unemployment rate below the national average.
But over the past 14 years, two successive OHL teams have struggled to generate interest here, posting attendance figures far lower than clubs in much smaller cities.
With the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Marlies (AHL) on their doorstep, it's easy for hockey fans to forget there's a major junior club in town.
Enter Elliott Kerr.
A long-time Mississauga resident who runs promotion company Landmark Sport Group Inc., Kerr bought the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors in May from Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk. He says he acted after getting a phone call from Mayor Hazel McCallion; had he not, the OHL team likely would have been relocated. But civic duty was not the only reason he stepped in.
"Most people were saying, 'It can't be done, it can't work.' That was a motivator for me, to be quite frank. It can work and it will work," he says during an interview in the board room of Landmark's offices near the Square One Shopping Centre. "That ultimate challenge is probably what turned me on."
A tall man with light, curly hair, Kerr speaks in a strong, measured voice. His disposition – friendly, but forceful – seems cultivated over his more than quarter-century as a sports agent.
Landmark, which he founded, represents a stable of Olympic athletes, golfers and sports broadcasters. He also started the Mississauga Marathon, which has drawn up to 15,000 runners some years. He has previously owned pieces of two OHL franchises: the first Mississauga team, the IceDogs (which moved and became the Niagara IceDogs in 2007), and most recently, the Guelph Storm.
Away from work, he's a widowed single father, raising twin six-year-old boys.
He's mustered some of this energy, not to mention promotional expertise, to work for the team. Over the summer, the club dropped its previous moniker and a contest run through the local newspaper settled on a new name: the Steelheads, a reference to the rainbow trout that populate the Credit River.
Kerr also wants to turn the city's Maple Leafs obsession to his team's advantage, securing the right to use the iconic blue-and-white colour scheme on Steelheads jerseys. It also helps that team captain Stuart Percy is a 2011 first-round draft pick of the Leafs (the Steelheads are distributing life-sized cutouts of the 19-year-old defenceman to libraries, community centres and businesses around town).
The marketing strategy has been a grassroots effort, with players, staff and volunteers dropping by summer festivals and forging links with minor hockey associations.
"Mississauga's a difficult market, with no daily newspaper and no daily radio station, so it takes a lot of hard work to get out there and do the community events, and do the brochure drops," says Scott Rogers, the Steelheads vice-president.
On-ice, the Majors/Steelheads team has not missed the playoffs since 2008. Three of its defencemen – Percy, Trevor Carrick and Dylan DeMelo – have been drafted by the NHL. Goalie Spencer Martin is returning this year; the team also traded for veteran Tyson Teichmann to help mentor him. How the club will fare offensively is an open question.
"Our defence should be strong, that's where the bulk of our experience lies," James Boyd, coach and general manager, says at the Hershey Centre, the suburban arena where the team plays its home games. "Up front, we've got a lot of returning players, we've got a hard-working team there. We'll score by committee, we don't have that one offensive superstar in that group."
The team posted a 3-2-1 record in exhibition games; the regular season begins Friday at home.
It will be the first real test of Kerr's work. His goal is for the team to achieve an average attendance of 3,000, up about 600 from last year's number. Ultimately, he says, the franchise will boost that figure to above 5,000.
Kerr has committed to keeping the team in Mississauga for three years. If he succeeds in turning its fortunes around, however, he says, he hopes to own the franchise indefinitely.
There are three things he must do to reach that goal, says Richard Powers, a marketing expert at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto.
First, the Steelheads have to get minor hockey players to identify with the team, whether by giving away tickets to pee-wee teams or bringing young players out on the ice between periods.
Second, it must form partnerships with retailers – giveaways through fast food outlets, for example.
And finally, the organization must draft well, bringing successful players into the market.
But the Steelheads' greatest advantage may be Kerr himself.
"These teams are usually owned by either ex-NHLers or community business people who may not necessarily know how to run a hockey team. Elliott Kerr understands sports and he's one of the best sports marketers in the country," Powers says. "If anybody can make a go of it, I'd put it in his hands."