It was shortly after 9:00PM on April 2nd, 2015, that the Belleville Bulls - a franchise with 34 years of history in the Quinte area, ceased to exist.
At the final buzzer, all 3,194 people who filled the green plastic seats of the Yardmen Arena, felt like they just lost a friend.
Every fan in the stands cheered. The famous Belleville Bulls cowbells were clanging, and the tears were flowing down the faces of both the players and the fans.
And then, it was over. The game. The playoffs. The Bulls. It was all over.
Many fans had heard rumours for years that the league would remove the team from Belleville, if changes to the club and more specifically its arena, were not made. Most people took this talk as nothing more than empty threats.
However, on March 12th, 2015 when the announcement of the club's sale was made, the hockey community realized that the league wasn't bluffing. Their Bulls were actually leaving and at that moment, they weren't coming back.
As the days went on, the Yardmen remained empty, save for local minor hockey, beer league, and the 2016 U-19 Women's World Floorball tournament.
The Bulls began to disappear from most everyday conversations, until talk began to circulate about a potential connection between the Binghamton Senators, Ottawa’s AHL affiliate, and the city. As hockey fans continued to mourn the loss of OHL hockey in their town, there was suddenly the slightest glimmer of hope that hockey would return to the city after all.
In a small city like Belleville, word travels fast. Soon, everyone was talking about the potential acquisition of the Binghamton Senators. Many believed though, that the talk was nothing more than hockey fans holding onto the most minuscule amount of hope, and that there was nothing behind the rumours.
After nine months of negotiations and many stretches of little-to-no information, there were suddenly two press conferences scheduled in Belleville, where it was made official.
Hockey is coming back to the city.
It's not often that you get a second chance. When something is lost, whether it be a job, a relationship, or even a sports team; it rarely returns.
Belleville, Ontario is getting that rare chance.
It has been a trend for Canadian NHL franchises to relocate their farm team up north and closer to home, and Ottawa certainly isn't the first to do it. The Maple Leafs moved the Marlies out of St. John’s, back to Toronto. Montréal are moving their affiliates to Laval, also to start play at at beginning of the 2017-18 season, and Winnipeg recently brought the Manitoba Moose back to the MTS Centre.
The annoncement was met with a very positive response from people across the Quinte area.
"It's good for the community. People identified with the Bulls, and hopefully the same will happen with the Senators," says Dean Eyers, a resident of Stirling, ON, a town just north of Belleville, and a student enrolled in Brock University's Sport Management program. "I'll probably catch a few games when I'm home, purely to evaluate the change. I'm curious to see the changes in the arena, if anything."
“As a child I grew up watching the Bulls and before that the Belleville Bobcats as my dad was their bus driver. I miss having hockey in the city and the excitement of it all,” added Tammy Byrnes of Belleville. “The work the team did in the community was incredible. I have a 6-month-old granddaughter and I look forward to her growing up watching hockey as well”
"I think this is wonderful news! I do plan on supporting them as long as ticket prices stay affordable," remarked Kristina Davies of Wooler, Ontario. "I lived in Winnipeg and would attend Manitoba Moose games as a family. It's a great caliber of hockey!"
There are some similarities to hosting an Ontario Hockey League team, and an American Hockey League team. There are also big differences.
The AHL, being the primary development league for the National Hockey League, is a professional league. When the Belleville Senators begin play in 2017, it will be the first time that Belleville has hosted professional hockey. What this means, among other things, is that there is significantly more money involved in the process. Players are paid salaries, and in most cases, especially in the Senators' case, the owners have deeper pockets.
Melnyk is the sole owner of the Ottawa Senators. With a net worth over one billion dollars, he certainly has more flexibility than the previous owners of the Belleville Bulls. Now that does not mean that as a businessman he would be willing to let the team bleed if it was performing poorly or costing him too much money. What it does mean, however, is that the Belleville affiliate will have increased access to resources, such as those of the Ottawa Senators, and less financial stress constantly hanging over the club.
Although players will still be paid in American dollars, many of the operational costs can now be paid in Canadian, which will also save ownership money.
Belleville city councillor, Jack Miller, the longtime voice of the Bulls as well as the local sports director for Quinte Broadcasting, had the following to say regarding the economic impact that the team will have on the Quinte area, in an interview with Don Brennan of the Ottawa Sun.
“From an economic point, you can always argue to what extent does it have an impact,” said Miller. “But this you can’t debate … now you’re not bringing kids in to billet, you’re bringing families in to live, and all the necessities for living in a community, whether it’s renting or buying or grocery shopping."
“And you’re bringing in (a business) with a $4-million payroll. To put it in perspective, it would be like bringing in a smaller industry with say, 40 people, making $100,000 a year," continued Miller. "That would be considered a big win. This is no different."
Part of this deal includes an $18.5-million dollar renovation to the Yardmen Arena, set to start 'immediately' following the announcement, to have the facility ready for the 2017-18 season. These renovations were an imperative piece to the negotiations for Senators' ownership.
It was the only rink in the league with Olympic-sized ice, an oddity that while interesting, was logistically challenging for both the Bulls and their opponents. The roof was so low, that netting had to be installed around the scoreboard to ensure that high clearances, deflections, and passes wouldn’t hit it. The lines for beer would sometimes last entire periods. And these were only a few problems that the league and the fans had with the arena.
Planned renovations include modifying the ice surface to fit NHL regulations, as opposed to its current Olympic-sized dimensions. There will also be an increase of 1,200 seats to bring the total capacity to 4,600. There are also plans to build VIP seating, VIP concessions and brand new premium glass seats.
When the Bulls played their final game, they left behind a 34-year history of some incredible, small-town hockey moments. Their departure has left a big void in the community. Now, Belleville is getting a chance to do it again, and to do it properly.
Here's to hoping that the Belleville Senators' eight-year deal, is the first of many more to come.