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The Bulls are gone from Belleville, but are they gone forever?

BELLEVILLE – The loss of the Belleville Bulls was a shock to local hockey fans. Is there any chance the Ontario Hockey League play could return to Belleville?<em>File photo by Matthew Desouza, Loyalist Photojournalism</em> [1]

BELLEVILLE – The loss of the Belleville Bulls was a shock to local hockey fans. Is there any chance that Ontario Hockey League play could return to Belleville? File photo by Matthew Desouza, Loyalist Photojournalism

By Tyler Penney [2]

BELLEVILLE – The Bulls have departed Belleville after 34 seasons, but how long will they be gone for?

The Belleville Bulls were abruptly sold on March 12 and are set to start a new season in Hamilton as the Hamilton Bulldogs. The Bulls’ former home was the Yardmen Arena, a rink with plenty of character and charm dating back to 1981, and with a capacity of 3,257 for hockey games. The Bulls will now play out of the First Ontario Centre, formerly known as Copps Coliseum, which is able to host 17,000 fans.

It all began Sept. 23, 1981, the Bulls’ first home game at the Yardmen and first game as part the Ontario Hockey League. The 1999 season would be one for the memories; that’s the year  the Bulls won it all. They defeated the London Knights 9-2 in Game 7 of the OHL championship series at the Yardmen to win their first J. Ross Robertson Cup, the OHL’s equivalent of the Stanley Cup. The Bulls competed in the 1999 Memorial Cup, hosted in Ottawa, versus the Calgary Hitmen, the Acadie-Bathurst Titan and the Ottawa 67’s [3]. Belleville finished third, losing to Ottawa 4-2 in the semifinal. The Bulls hosted an all-star game in 2006 to celebrate their 25th anniversary in the OHL. They earned 102 points during the 2007-08 regular season and another Memorial Cup berth in 2008.

But this past March, Gord Simmonds, the Bulls’ majority owner, sold the team to Hamilton businessman Michael Andauer, owner of the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League. Andauer moved the Bulldogs, the farm team for the Montreal Canadiens [4], to St. John’s, where they will play until a new arena for them is built in Laval, Que. Andauer is a Canadiens shareholder.

What good did the sale of the Bulls do for the city of Belleville? The team was around for 34 years and would have celebrated the start of its 35th season this month. Fans were devastated by the loss, which affected not only for Belleville but the entire Quinte region.

At the time the move was announced, OHL commissioner David Branch held out the possibility of a team returning to the city in the future. “The Bulls have been a part of the Belleville community for over 30 years and we respect the role they have played in the community,” he said. “It is the OHL’s hope, as with other small cities in our league, that one day, with the right conditions, OHL hockey will return to Belleville.”

But what would it take for that to happen? A new arena, or a renovated Yardmen? More fans at the games? More season-ticket holders?

QNet News is talking to the founders of a Bring Back the Bulls campaign, as well as local politicians  and hockey fans, about the possibility of a team coming back to Belleville. More to come.