BELLEVILLE – Fans, a sponsor, and even a former captain of the Belleville Bulls are saying it’s important to keep the Ontario Hockey League team in Belleville.
The reaction comes after Bulls owner Gord Simmonds warned  that he will have to consider moving the team if talks over improvements to the city-owned Yardmen Arena, its home rink, do not progress in the next two years. City Councillor Jack Miller has told QNet News that the city has other financial priorities at the moment, primarily infrastructure projects.
Season-ticket holder Ellie Guenette has been following the Bulls since the day they started, in 1981. She is hoping that the city and the team can come to an agreement sooner rather than later, she said.
“If everyone is on the same page, I would hope that they could work together to make it happen and not miss out on keeping the team in Belleville,” Guenette said.
“I want to see them here forever. I want my grandkids to grow up Bulls fans. I want to keep going. I want to be that old lady in the stands that everyone knows who she is because she has been going to the game for 50 years.”
Lifelong fan Phil Phillips says he is wondering when the city will start taking the issue more seriously.
“When do the Bulls become a priority?” Phillips asked.
People need to realize the exposure that the team brings to the city, he added.
“What else puts us on the map provincially, nationally and internationally in a positive way as often as the Belleville Bulls?”
However, Phillips has experienced first-hand the problem of low attendance at the games, which some people have suggested is partly a result of the current state of the Yardmen. He says it’s becoming an issue, no matter how well the team is doing.
“Obviously the Bulls are struggling this year. They are obviously in a rebuilding mode, which will make attendance a little less,” he said. But at the same time, he noted, last year when the team was in first place and playing Game 7 of the conference final, the Yardmen still wasn’t sold out.
One person who once felt the effects of low game attendance is former Bulls captain Luke Judson. Attendance has been declining ever since the team was in the Memorial Cup in 2008, Judson said. But when fans did come to the games, no matter how many or how few there were, they were electric, he said.
“We knew we weren’t going to get the most fans every night, but whether there was 3,000 people some nights or 1,500 some nights, they were loud and they were proud, and we were happy to be there.”
Judson said he knows from talking to the people of Belleville that the biggest reason fans don’t go to the games is the condition of the arena. He knows the Simmonds family is committed to making changes, and feels the city needs to step up and do something, he said.
“I think it’s obviously coming up on Belleville’s turn to make some upgrades or – I don’t know what exactly they need to do to keep them there, but obviously something needs to be done.”
Paul Moorman, president of Bulls sponsor Culligan, said it would be devastating for a small, close-knit community like Belleville to lose the team.
“I think it would be a tremendous loss to the community. If I remember correctly I think we are the smallest city in the OHL, and I think that speaks volumes of the importance of the team to this city. And it creates a positive image throughout the province, which has economic spinoffs.”
His company’s sponsorship of the team is “part of what we do to give back to our community. In other words, I’m not looking at our sponsorship as a strictly financial equation. I’m looking at it as being part of an important part of our community.”
If the Bulls left, one of the biggest losses would be the legacy of hockey in Belleville, Moorman said.
“I think that everyone would lose. I don’t think Mr. Simmonds wants to move. I think he wants to stay in Belleville. He chose to be part of this team. I think it would be a shame to lose a part of this legacy, all the way back to (team founder) Dr. (Robert) Vaughan and his ownership.
“Belleville has a rich hockey heritage all the way back to the Belleville McFarlands . So the Bulls are a newer version of the history and that legacy.”