And just like that, the Belleville Bulls are no more, destined to be succeeded by the Hamilton Bulldogs and survive in thousands of junior hockey fans' memories.
Three weeks to the day after it was announced that Michael Andlauer had bought the Ontario Hockey League team and would move it to the Hammer, the Bulls played their final game on Thursday by losing 4-2 to the favoured Barrie Colts to complete a four-game sweep. The end was hard to take. One can abide that junior hockey finances might have dictated the sale and the move and still feel for fans who had a team taken away.
The last image of overage Adam Bignell leaving his No. 55 sweater at centre ice, in the manner of wrestlers who denote their retirement by leaving their shoes on the mat, will be burned into memory.
— Belleville Bulls (@OHLBulls) April 3, 2015
Teams come and go in major junior hockey. But following the league is about the creature comforts, the little touches that one links to each team, and not necessarily her/his favourite. Since the Bulls were from a smaller population centre by OHL standards, since they often punched above their weight, they were a popular soft-spot team. There was an appreciation of what went into a team in a city of about 50,000, striving to compete with bigger centres such as Ottawa, London and Kitchener and how 20 or so billet families opened their hearts and homes to players each season.
Whatever the future holds for the Hamilton Bulldogs, there was a lot about the Bulls that can never be replaced for people.
The Subban legacy
There might be no hockey family in Canada with so much talent that is so linked with one major junior hockey franchise. For the past 10 seasons, from a 16-year-old P.K. Subban flashing early potential in 2005-06 through Vancouver Canucks prospect Jordan Subban's likely final OHL game on Thursday, at least one Subban wore the tricoloured Bulls uniform. (It's only a slight stretch, since Malcolm Subban appeared in one game in '09-10 as a 16-year-old call-up.)
The Olympic-size ice in Belleville was a space that the eldest Subban brother could truly explore as he honed the brashness and brilliance that's endeared him to untold hockey fans as a Norris Trophy winner with the Montreal Canadiens. During the 2008 OHL final, when the Bulls took Kitchener to seven games, P.K. probably skated a marathon every night.
Malcolm Subban became a Boston Bruins first-rounder while tending net. Jordan Subban will go down as the last player to lead the Bulls in scoring, and scored the team's last goal, fittingly.
Glorious gold jerseys
When the Bulls hit the ice in those bright school bus-gold jerseys, the mind could lost in a reverie. They popped long before that term was a thing. It also created a more visual feast for the hockey fashionista, creating a colour vs. colour matchup since the Bulls' opponent would wear its darker jerseys instead of wearing white.
The Bulls' use of gold, though, came from a time before third jerseys and carefully calculated branding and marketing campaigns came to junior hockey. Those aren't bad things — sports fans are ultimately looting for laundry — but the Bulls' use of gold seemed more authentic. Any monies from the sale of throwback merchandise will be staying in the community. It probably seems like a token gesture, but the team's history will stay with Belleville.
All too often nowadays, no one wants to use a less popular colour for fear of turning off potential merchandise buyers. To wit, in the Canadian Hockey League there is no team with purple as its base colour. All but two of 22 WHL teams use either black, blue or red.
This isn't intended to be debate about whether Olympic ice or the narrower NHL surface makes for a better game. It's an argument against uniformity. The world seems bent on knowing what it's getting instead of taking risk; ever been in a strange city and picked a chain restaurant over a local place? Watching a game from the Yardmen, the only Olympic-sized sheet in the OHL, meant for different angles and bounces than one was accustomed to seeing in 19 other rinks, not that a few (yes, you, Peterborough Memorial Centre) didn't have their own little nooks and crannies.
The Bulls could tailor their team to the wider surface and indulge their need for speed. That probably reached nirvana on that night in 1999 when Jonathan Cheechoo scored five goals in Game 7 of the OHL final against the London Knights, bringing the J. Ross Robertson Cup to the Friendly City.
The voice — Jack Miller
For OHL fans of a certain vintage who came of age in prior to the advent of digital cable and the Internet, the way to follow the league was simple. You went to games, listened on the radio and, if you could convince Mum to leave you at home on Saturday afternoons instead of being dragged along to grocery shopping, watched the game of the week on Global TV.
Miller, the Bulls' long-time radio commentator and a Belleville city councillor, handled the play-by-play, making him the sound of many people's childhoods. His rich voice and tone that conveyed that he had his facts down imparted, at least to a kid who already knew he'd be better at discussing sports than playing them, the importance of doing the prep work.
Hearing Miller while streaming CJBQ 800 or on Sportsnet Radio during the world junior, or seeing him prep for a game, sustained that connection. Many a media professional would put a up a fight over being elevated over the people who have agency in winning games, but it's due.
Here is Miller's final Bulls broadcast, alongside Belleville Intelligencer Paul Svoboda.
Under the right circumstances in springtime, the vitality of a junior hockey team and its public can become one. In 2008, when the Bulls tore through Peterborough, Barrie and Oshawa and were the people's choice in the final against Peter DeBoer's Kitchener Rangers, cowbells were the noisemaker of choice for Bulls fans. Borrowing from the famous Will Ferrell Saturday Night Live sketch, "Gotta have more cowbell!" became a rallying call whenever fans intuited that their guys needed a pick-me-up.
The Bulls' championship dreams were dashed twice by Kitchener in Game 7 of the OHL final and a 9-0 whitewashing in the Memorial Cup semifinal at The Aud. Yet, seven years on, other teams' fans' ears might still be ringing at the mere recollection.
Point being, none of the above can be taken away from anyone who enjoyed the Bulls being in the OHL at any point across the past 34 seasons.
Bulls fans, your 2014/15 Belleville Bulls. Thank you for your support all season long! pic.twitter.com/58tedS6ySD
— Belleville Bulls (@OHLBulls) April 3, 2015
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.