1981 was a year of change for the Ontario Hockey League. Commissioner David Branch was entering his third season at the helm and was poised to make a lasting impression on the junior circuit. The league officially separated from the Ontario Hockey Association to take more control over scheduling, officials and player discipline.
They also streamlined the league’s name from Ontario Major Junior Hockey League and introduced a new logo to coincide with the name change.
The league also looked at expansion for the first time since granting a team for Windsor in 1975.
After an aborted attempt to purchase the Niagara Falls Flyers and move them to Belleville, an ownership group spearheaded by Dr. Robert Vaughan made a formal application for the league to add Belleville as its 13th franchise.
Groups from North Bay, Guelph and Sarnia were also interested, but the Belleville bid was the only one accepted by the OHL’s Board of Governors. On February 3, 1981, the Board unanimously voted to grant the Belleville franchise to principal owners Vaughan and Bob Dolan.
One of the first pieces of business for the league’s newest owners was to solidify the hockey program. As part of their expansion package, the Bulls were permitted to select a roster of players that were left unprotected by the other clubs and were given the first pick in each round of the midget draft.
Vaughan and Dolan turned to Larry Mavety to usher in the new era of hockey in Belleville.
Mavety knew that despite nearly winning it all the year before in Tier II that the OHL was a much different animal. He would need to find as many players as possible with OHL experience to have any chance of competing in the top junior league in the country -and possibly the world.
Mavety took 23 players from the cast-off lists from the other teams, including Joe McCallion and Steve Slaughter, who played with the Bulls in the Centennial Cup. Mavety then set his sights on the midget draft where he used the first overall pick on talented centre Dan Quinn, who tore up the Jr. B circuit with London.
He also pegged future Bulls Darren Pang, Noble Carlton, Rob Crocock and an undersized centre from Brantford named Dunc MacIntyre.
Mavety brought more than 70 players into camp the first year. Some of the faces were familiar to local fans, but most including five players invited from Finland – were as new to the team as the team was to the OHL.
“Everybody that came to training camp had a legitimate chance of making the team,” MacIntyre said. “Guys were literally fighting for spots on that team that year. They knew that they had a legitimate chance to make that team.”
Mavety brought in another familiar face early in the pre-season. He made a trade with the Sudbury Wolves for Napanee native Ben Kelly, an alternate captain with his Tier II Bulls the previous year.
The Bulls lost their first exhibition game -9-4 to the Kingston Canadians – and finished the pre-season with a 2-5-1 record.
Mavety refused to panic. He was offered the coaching job for the much more experienced Brantford Alexanders but turned it down for the opportunity to build something from scratch in Belleville.
Prior to the season opener, Mavety shipped second round pick Mark Paterson -who refused to report to training camp to Ottawa for Ali Butorac and a draft pick. Mavety liked the experience that Butorac brought to the club, but the veteran balked at playing for the expansion team and went back home to Sault Ste. Marie.
Just prior to the season opener, Mavety made a deal with the Oshawa Generals that sent Butorac west to the Motor City in exchange for Ray Flaherty, Jack Woods, Craig Kitchener and Scott Cooper.
The move brought in two players – Flaherty and Kitchener -with much-needed OHL experience.
After pre-season predictions that the youthful Bulls would be hard pressed to win 10 games all season, the group shocked Kingston with a 12-7 win in the season opener.
The Bulls looked nervous early and were down 2-0 after the first period, but came out flying in the second period. Woods scored 44 seconds into the middle frame and the Bulls piled in three more second period goals before exploding for seven in the third period for their historic first win.
Excerpt from 25 Years with the Belleville Bulls (Bell, Aaron 2005)
Intelligencer photo courtesy Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County