The reality is setting in.
An iconic, Ontario Hockey League mainstay since 1981, the Belleville Bulls will be no more following this 2014-2015 season.
This stark reality follows last week’s stunning announcement that Bulls majority owner Gord Simmonds has sold the time-honoured Belleville franchise that will relocate to Hamilton to begin play at the 17,000-seat, FirstOntario Centre, effective the 2015-2016 season.
Simmonds, who will remain on board as a minority owner and team governor for the new Hamilton Bulldogs of the OHL, said he had “no choice” but to sell the Bulls.
Simmonds and his group sold the Bulls to Michael Andlauer, former operator of the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League, the top farm club of the National Hockey League’s Montreal Canadiens, which is moving to St. John’s, Newfoundland for next season.
Simmonds said that after 11 years of owning the Bulls, he and his partners saw “no way” to continue to play in an aging facility — Belleville’s 37-year-old Yardmen Arena — which is the only building in the OHL not to be replaced or significantly renovated over the past several years.
Simmonds said he was “sad” to have to sell the Bulls but without a promise of upgrades to Yardmen Arena, the franchise was no longer viable in Belleville.
“It’s a distressing situation and it’s distressing to the Belleville community,” Simmonds told the Belleville Intelligencer. “It’s not a decision that we have any joy in making. But it was the right decision for our ownership group.”
Simmonds noted that the sale of the Bulls “was a relatively compact process” and that he hadn’t been “actively shopping” the franchise.
“We were introduced to Mr. Andlauer and saw there was an opportunity to consider something where we weren’t boxed in,” said Simmonds.
“The OHL is the top development league in the world and a league that’s moving forward and lots of groups are looking for teams to buy. We’ve had a lot of interest for all 11 years we’ve owned the team.”
Simmonds told the Intelligencer he didn’t believe Belleville city council was moving forward on whether to replace or upgrade Yardmen Arena to OHL standards.
“Unfortunately, we were at the end of our contract and there hadn’t been any dialogue,” said Simmonds.
To be sure, the need for a new or improved arena in Belleville has been a topic that Simmonds has talked about since he purchased the Bulls from founder and original owner Dr. Robert Vaughan in 2004.
“I remember talking about it at our first press conference,” he said. “We’re pretty straightforward. We’re not that complicated. Our message has been the same for 11 years. Everyone of us is sad and sorry that this is the decision we had to make,” Simmonds added.
A smaller-market OHL franchise, the Bulls were long linked to their founder, the personable “Doc” Vaughan and their coach-general manager of many years, the colourful and legendary Larry Mavety.
Bulls alumni includes former NHL veterans Al Iafrate, Darren McCarty, Marty McSorley and Danny Quinn and current NHL stars Jason Spezza and P.K. Subban.
From a Sault Ste. Marie standpoint, several Soo boys played for the Bulls over the course of their OHL careers including goalie Joey Shunock and Robert Stopar, defencemen Ali Butorac and Lenny Devuono and forwards Tony Butorac, Jarrett Reid, Todd Sepkowski, Kevin Mackay and John Porco.
Of note, Tony Butorac and Reid had 50-goal seasons for the Soo Greyhounds before closing out their OHL careers in Belleville as overage players. And Porco spent his entire three-year career with the Bulls, scoring 109 goals.