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Former Bulls miss Belleville, but embrace new chapter in Hamilton

Michael Cramarossa is now wearing number 43 for his new team the Hamilton Bulldogs. Photo from hamiltonbulldogs.com. [1]

Hamilton Bulldogs left-winger Michael Cramarossa (No. 43, right) said he misses playing in Belleville. “It was a great community with a lot of great fans,” he said. Photo courtesy of hamiltonbulldogs.com [2]

By Mo Cranker [3]

BELLEVILLE – Almost one year ago, Belleville lost its Ontario Hockey League [4] team, the Bulls [5].

The team had been a staple in the city for over 30 years before businessman Michael Andlauer [6] purchased and moved it to Hamilton [7], Ont., and renamed it the Bulldogs [7].

Since then, fans, players and the coaching staff have all seen drastic changes.

The players and coaches have moved from a city of less 50,000 people to one with a population of over half a million. Meanwhile, the fans in Belleville were left with nothing on the same level as OHL hockey to fill the void.

George Burnett [8], who coached the Bulls for 11 seasons before moving to Hamilton with the team, said continued support from the Belleville fans has meant a lot to the Bulldogs.

“It’s simple. We miss Belleville,” Burnett told QNet News Wednesday.

“There’s the people we still continue to see on the road – particularly (at games) in Kingston, Ottawa, Oshawa, Peterborough – and even in our own building there’s a number of Bulls jerseys there. Those folks, it’s special to reconnect with them and run into them.”

On the other hand, he and the players are enjoying Hamilton’s top-of-the-line facilities and an arena with rising attendance numbers [9].

“Our players know that this was not easy for a small community to see their team move. But it is a business,” Burnett said. “I know our attendance is significantly stronger here in Hamilton. The boys enjoy playing in front of it. We had 6,300 (in the stands) the other night.” For most games, he added, there are 3,000-odd fans, and in recent weeks, as the team has been playing better, that number has grown to more than 4,000. By contrast, Bulls games at the Yardmen Arena in Belleville were averaging around 2,500 fans per game [10] in the final four seasons.

Bulldogs centre Niki Petti [11], who spent three years playing for the Bulls, told QNet News that one of the things he misses most about Belleville was the regular fan recognition and interaction.

“I remember walking around Belleville and seeing a lot of fans and people that I know. I remember being recognized in the city a lot more than being in a bigger city,” he said. “I think that’s part of the adjustment period. Things are different here. If you go out to a mall you’re not seeing people that know you by name.”

Left-winger Michael Cramarossa [12], who also played here for three years, says he misses the support the Bulls had.

“It was a great community with a lot of great fans,” Cramarossa said. The families who billeted the young players here “were great. Just overall, it was a great experience for me to grow into the player I am.”

Petti said his favourite memory of playing with the Bulls was the team’s playoff run during the 2012-13 season.

“We had a really good hockey club. We made it to the Eastern Conference finals, and that was my first year in the league. I’ll never forget that experience.

“I remember seeing the Yardmen packed, and a lot of fans came out to support us. It was a great feeling and an awesome experience.”

Cramarossa also had great memories of that playoff run, when he was a rookie and his older brother, Joseph, was playing centre for the Bulls.

The experience “really taught me how to play the game and what it takes to win. That was a really good memory for me,” he said.

Fans in Belleville organize group trips [13] to see the Bulldogs play in cities across the province. For more information, go to the Facebook page Bring the Bulls Back to Belleville [14].