For more than four decades, the Belleville Bulls helped shape the identity of the Friendly City. The players have been a focal point of the community since their admission into the OHL in 1981, but the love affair between the city and the team started a little bit earlier than that.
It’s not easy to select the greatest player in team history, but it is easy to pinpoint the exact moment in time that the Bulls first captured the hearts of the citizens of Belleville.
In just their second season in the Provincial Tier II loop, the Bulls rode a high-powered offence and the guidance of Larry Mavety to a berth in the national championships.
Players like Brett Kelleher, Joe McCallion, Ian Macinnes and Ben Kelly were the first local heroes that donned the Black, Red and Gold. They helped the squad put together an impressive 35-7-2 record that was followed by an even more impressive run through the Provincial League’s playoffs. They swept through the first two rounds to set up a showdown with the Guelph Platers, who finished second to the Bulls in the regular season and had just knocked off the defending champion North York Rangers.
Guelph came out flying in the finals and took Game 1 at the Quinte Sports Centre – it was their second game in as many nights and third in the past four days. 1\vo nights later in Guelph, the Platers jumped out to a 3-1 lead and were threatening to score again with a two-man powerplay that would put the game – and possibly the series – out of reach.
The Bulls killed off the advantage and then Kelleher and Mccallion found the net less than two minutes apart. The Bulls went on to a 6-3 win. After Guelph’s quick start, the wheels fell off in a hurry. Belleville won Game 3 in front of nearly 3,200 fans. They also took the next two games in commanding fashion to clinch the league championship.
The Bulls cruised through best-of-five series against the Onaping Falls Huskies and Thunder Bay Kings to set up a final series against the Gloucester Rangers for the Ontario championship and a berth in the Centennial Cup national championship. Gloucester was directed by future Hull Olympiques manager Charlie Henry and were riding the goaltending of diminutive netminder Darren Pang, who went on to star with the Bulls early in their OHL days.
Belleville doubled Gloucester 4-2 to win the opening game at the Quinte Sports Centre, but the Rangers bounced back with a 7-6 win in double overtime in Game 2. They scored with eight seconds left in Game 3 for a 3-2 win but the Bulls tied the series with an 8-1 win in Game 4 and then became provincial champions with a 10-8 overtime win in Game 7.
The Bulls battled back from two-goal deficits four times in the deciding game, which sports writer Ady Vos from The Intelligencer called “probably the most thrilling game ever played at the Quinte Sports Centre.”
“I just can’t believe it,” Mavety said during the post-game celebration. “They never quit and just kept taking the play to them. What can you say about a game like that? The guys just wouldn’t die.”
The Bulls celebrated with their fans during an appreciation night at the Lion’s Club before departing for Halifax, Nova Scotia to play for the national championship.
In Halifax, the Bulls opened the double round robin tournament with a 5-3 win over Cole Harbour (Newfoundland) before losing 4-1 to the Prince Albert Raiders, who were looking for their third national championship in five years. A5-3 win over Cole Harbour gave the Bulls a berth in the finals against Prince Albert.
Part-owner Dr. Robert Vaughan made the trip to Halifax and cheered the team on wearing a full matador’s costume, complete with bull’s horns. The Bulls handed Prince Albert their first loss of the tournament in the final round robin game, but the Raiders won the final 6-2, ending the Bulls’ dreams of a national title.
“We weren’t supposed to be even in the same rink as them,” Mavety said. “The whole thing was about Prince Albert. At the banquet, we nearly had a fight with them in the lobby.”
More than 1,300 fans filled the Quinte Sports Centre to welcome their heroes home. The players were paraded to the reception in a convertible caravan led by a police escort. The team fell one win short of a dream season, but their success brought national exposure to the Bay of Quinte city.
Mavety summed it up best to Vos.
“It’s nice to be number one, but being number two in Canada isn’t bad.”
Excerpt from 25 Years with the Belleville Bulls (Bell, Aaron 2005)
Intelligencer photo courtesy Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County