MSL: Major shakeup as Brampton Excelsiors relocate to Owen Sound (UPDATED)

Jordan Dance of the Brampton “Bug Juice” Excelsiors, in MSL playoff action, August 2019. (Photo credit: Anna Taylor)

There has been some explosive news out of Major Series Lacrosse this past week. First, the Six Nations Chiefs published a blog post indicating that without sponsorship and more fan support, 2021 might be their last season in the league.

Then on Wednesday, the Owen Sound Sun Times dropped a bomb into the Ontario lacrosse community when they broke the news that the Brampton Excelsiors would be relocating to Owen Sound in time for the 2021 season.

Teams moving isn’t new in the MSL, or lacrosse in general. Despite being one of the oldest sports in the modern world, it’s still a niche sport. There aren’t enough die-hard fans to make up for the lack of casual fans, despite the passion found in summer ball. In the last 10 years, the MSL has had teams leave St. Regis, Akwesasne, Barrie, Ajax and Kitchener-Waterloo. New teams sprung up in their place – Ajax moved to Oakville and KW moved to Cobourg. Even NLL teams aren’t immune.

“It’s not uncommon for smaller teams in these major markets to not garner enough fan support to sustain them, and that is what eventually happened,” owner Joe Norton told the Sun Times. “We had a lot of back and forth about it, both within the organization and with Brampton, and we just came to the final conclusion that the team needs a fanbase that can support the cost of running the team at this level. In Brampton, we just couldn’t get enough fans to support the team.”

The Excelsiors are the oldest team in MSL; in fact, their first iteration began in 1883. The New Westminster Salmonbellies are the only other team that come to mind with a start date in that era (1888).

They’ve had other names (Combines, Ramblers, Sealtests), but the Excelsiors brand began and will, apparently, end the legacy of the team in Brampton.

We reached out to MSL commissioner Doug Luey but had no response at press time. However, a press release on the MSL website states that the move was approved by the league’s board of governors on October 15 although it had not been made public because it has not yet been approved by the Ontario Lacrosse Association.

In 2018, the Excelsiors were a community-owned team, but President Ziggy Musial transferred the club to Joe Norton, owner of the Detroit-based Bug Juice product, a type of sports drink marketed to kids. Although, sports drinks have good things like electrolytes in them; Bug Juice is mostly made up of sugar and lighter fluid. (Kidding on the lighter fluid, but just try it. You’ll see what I mean.)

Excelsiors board of directors member Ron Evans confirmed to ILWT that although Musial had the authority to negotiate on their behalf, they heard nothing between February 26 and April 9, 2018, after the deal to transfer the club was signed. Evans stated that Musial then continually denied access to the agreement to the board of directors. They were shown the agreement for the first time upon hearing news of the move several weeks ago – over two years after it was signed.

“We were shocked. Not just at the agreement but all of the written in amendments that were made the day the agreement was signed. Giving more and more to Norton,” Evans said. “We would never have agreed to a deal that would give a potential owner the ability to just take the team and leave town. I contend this deal is illegal and the sale should be null and void.”

At the time, there was a second local Brampton party interested in purchasing the Excels; that offer was dismissed.

Evans also says that despite Norton’s claim in the Sun Times article that “We had a lot of back and forth about it, both within the organization and with Brampton,” the board of directors was never consulted about the move.

 

It will not be surprising in the least to see a legal battle, or governmental intervention, arise from this mess. For updates, I recommend following Evans on Twitter.

You don’t mess with a classic.

From an outside perspective, Norton’s partnership initially seemed to be a good thing. Norton hired more staff and volunteers and immediately dove into marketing the team in the community and on social media, integrating it with his Bug Juice brand. The gameday experience featured activities for kids and a beer garden for adults. Though the name “Brampton Bug Juice Excelsiors,” and the use of the corporate logo on the jerseys, were mocked endlessly in lacrosse circles, Norton stuck to his marketing while the team brought in new talent on the floor.

Unfortunately, none of that brought in the fans in the numbers that the Excelsiors needed to sustain the team in their current location. If they ever averaged over 200 fans a game, I didn’t see it.

The Excelsiors last Mann Cup win was in 2011. The next year they failed to make the MSL final for the first time since 1995, and it wasn’t until 2019 that they really started making noise again in the playoffs, with Jeff Teat leading a supremely talented young crop of Brampton-born players. Those hometown guys have got to be disappointed to be moving, to no longer be able to represent the organization they grew up playing for.

Brampton to Owen Sound is almost two hours, meaning extended road trips for the other teams in the league. From Peterborough, it’s 3.5 hours. From Six Nations, it’s three. However, many lacrosse players have done that trip before, because Owen Sound has a lacrosse legacy of its own. The Crescents won the Mann Cup in 1950 before folding, but lacrosse came back in 1967 with the founding of the North Stars. The North Stars were in the MSL until 1995 when they became a Sr. B team, and now are consistently one of the stronger Sr. B teams in that loop. Norton purchased the North Stars, also previously community-owned, shortly after he acquired the Excelsiors.

The team will play out of the Harry Lumley Bayshore Community Centre, home to the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack. It’s certainly an upgrade from Brampton’s Memorial Arena with seats instead of wooden bleachers, more modern dressing rooms and air conditioning. It once got so hot in Memorial Arena that the Lakers’ Evan Kirk had to take himself out of a game as a precaution. That alone might entice some players to be excited about the move. That said, Memorial Arena is one of the grandest old barns in the sport, and she will be missed. I can’t imagine the MSL without the Excelsiors.

Owen Sound’s Sr. B team, Jr. B team and minor lacrosse program will also move to the Bayshore.

Now, whether we see the Excelsiors in Owen Sound this year depends of course, on the current pandemic. The MSL already lost its 2020 season. Keep following us on Twitter for updates to this story.

And, Paul Tutka pointed out this hypocritical tweet, posted when Norton was announced as the new owner. Sure, times change, but changing 150 years of history shouldn’t be done this lightly.

Leave a Reply