Being a fan of a sports franchise is a very fulfilling way to spend your spare time. The memories you can share with family while making new friends and watching young men grow up before your eyes in a communal setting can be very rewarding.
As the departure of the Belleville Bulls illustrates, sometimes it can be very cruel.
It was known for some time that the Ontario Hockey League franchise that has taken up residence at the Yardmen Arena in Belleville was perhaps on shaky ground. An aging facility and an owner frustrated no renovations or new infrastructure would be coming any time soon have had people in the Quinte area on edge about the team’s viability.
Regardless of those facts, it came as a shock to people all around the junior hockey world when it was announced last week that Bulls owner Gord Simmonds had sold the club to Michael Andlauer who will move the team to Hamilton to replace the American Hockey League’s Bulldogs, who are bound for St. John’s, N.L.
One of the charms of watching junior hockey in Canada is the atmosphere a small town team can bring to a league. The OHL is starting to outgrow its small town roots. Belleville offered something that has becoming an endangered species. Fans packed to the rafters making real noise without the over commercialization and constant reminders to make noise – brought to you by McDonalds.
It is true that the Yardmen has not exactly been packed to the rafters as of late but the constant following the Bulls have had over the years is something that will be missed across the OHL.
Wayne and Sandra Cooney have been regulars at the Yardmen since the late 1970s when the Bulls weren’t even an OHL franchise. Joining them in recent years has been their grandson Brady, 14, who has been coming to games with Wayne and Sandra since he was three.
“A kick in the gut for sure,” explains Wayne. While the move wasn’t totally a shock to Wayne and his wife it did come as a shock that it happened this soon.
“This came right outta left field,” he says with a look of disbelief on his face. “The owner (Simmonds) looked at Sandra and I a few months back and said I’m not selling the team, I’m keeping it here, I have no interest in selling.”
Sandra noted, by way of explaining how sudden the move seemed, that the Bulls contacted them about early bird pricing for season tickets last month and that they had already paid for their 2015-16 seats and had upgraded their grandson to platinum seats.
“Our whole social calendar from fall to spring revolved around the Bulls,” she says. “If they aren’t playing that night, then we can attend other events. What the hell are we going to do now? It’s sad.”
While shock and anger can easily take over a fan whose team is leaving, many turn to the good times they have shared and their memories of the team.
One memory many will treasure is the image of John Wilson, AKA Cymbulls. For 25 years, Wilson has come dressed in his black and gold marching band outfit, crashing together cymbals and helping the crowd get on their feet.
“I wanted to do something a little more unique and personal to me that hopefully nobody else would do,” Wilson explains. “I am the one-man show, the one man band.”
Wilson experimented over the years with other noisemakers, such as slide whistles, but was quickly told how he could still easily be spotted but not quite heard in the arena. “
That was fun but they couldn’t hear me so I put a stop to that,” he says.
The decision was made to make it cymbals through something Wilson held close to his heart.
“The principal of a school for the deaf that I worked for said they had some marching band cymbals in their closet. He explained to me that if I used them for the Belleville Bulls and didn’t tell anybody where I got ’em, you can have em.”
Wilson has even had custom handles made for the cymbals that he has taken all across the league – “except London,” he adds.
While many think this means the end of the OHL in Belleville, Wilson holds out hope that a Bulls team will one day skate in the city again.
“I think it will be back. North Bay eventually had enough of a demand. We will have to build a bigger facility to accommodate that. Nothing is impossible.”
Will the cymbals return if the Bulls ever do?
“Of course! If you’ve practiced for 25 years you should be good, this is just a blip in the journey.”
Wayne and Sandra provide an entire list of memories (literally) that they have to remember fondly of their time cheering on the Bulls. Many of those include match ups with the three incarnations of the Kingston franchise as well as going to the Memorial Cup in Kitchener in 2008.
One memory that always seems most vivid was Jonathan Cheechoo’s five-goal performance in game 7 of the 1999 final against the London Knights that boosted Belleville to their only J. Ross Robertson Cup.
On this night Bulls fans are treated to another memory as Belleville scores a come-from-behind 4-3 shootout victory over not just a divisional rival in the Oshawa Generals, but against the team ranked No. 1 in the entire country.
As the Bulls and a crowd of 3,408 celebrated in the win to the sounds of Wasn’t That a Party by the Irish Rovers, it became hard to believe that the OHL would be willing to leave this behind.