Saturday, March 21, 2015


Paul Svboda chats with Greg Royce about the Bulls

Greg Royce was attending the CIS men's hockey championships in Halifax when he first heard rumours that the Belleville Bulls might be moving to Hamilton.

Saturday, while driving his son to a minor bantam hockey game in Scarborough, the former Belleville Bulls forward and current scout for the NHL Buffalo Sabres still couldn't believe it's true.

“It blindsided me,” said Royce, 50. “I thought there was no way they could push it through that quick. Wow. What happened to the deadline for moving franchises?”

                                                         Shawn Matthias-former Bull

That's what a lot of people wondered when Bulls majority owner, wealthy Uxbridge businessman Gord Simmonds, announced on March 12 that the Bulls were indeed sold and moving to Hamilton next season. It seemed to happen so fast with little or no warning to city officials, fans or potential local owners that a deal was already done.

Royce understands the Canadian Hockey League has been eager to move into major markets in all three of its leagues. It's big business.

But he says the foundation of major junior hockey remains in the smaller towns and cities — like Belleville.

                                            With another favourite, Cody McCormick

“Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Quebec City — they're all great,” said Royce. “But the fabric of junior hockey is the small towns. Prince Albert, Baie-Comeau, Victoriaville, Belleville. That's where the hockey is the lifeblood of the community in winter.”

                                          Doug Gilmour, also a former Bull, at his induction.

He's also disappointed the city never properly addressed shortcomings at Yardmen Arena, although he says it's far from the worst building in the CHL.

“I was in Victoriaville scouting a QMJHL game the other day and it has a rink as small and as old as they come,” said Royce. “They put in a few suites. It would've been nothing to do that at Yardmen Arena, on the balcony side above the visitors bench.

                                       With PK Subban, former Bull, now with the Habs.

“Owen Sound too. Their upgrades were putting in some more seats and some suites. It wasn't a major reno. Yardmen Arena still has more potential.

“It's too bad Belleville couldn't have taken the appropriate steps to upgrade Yardmen Arena, even a little bit.”

During his 11-year ownership tenure, Simmonds often said dwindling attendance at Yardmen Arena was threatening the future of the franchise.

                                          Former Bull, Keith Gretzky, now an NHL Scout.

Bulls rank 18th in the 20-team OHL this season with an average home crowd of 2,509. Only Peterborough (2,495) and the Plymouth Whalers (2,337), who move to Flint next season, draw fewer fans.

Royce said a consistently attractive product combined with rink renos might've solved the problem in Belleville.

“It's a bit of both,” he said. “Upgrades may have gotten more people into the building, but did some fans object to the on-ice product? With the product not as successful the last couple of seasons or maybe not as exciting on a regular basis as previous years, some people may have objected.

“I'm not blaming the coaches. But people love a winner. If you have a winner, I think attendance would spike back up.”

Though it's been 20 years since Hamilton last had an OHL team — the hapless Dukes — the city has been a wasteland for junior hockey in the past. The AHL Bulldogs, who move to St. John's at the end of this season, are averaging just more than 4,000 spectators in an enormous 17,000-seat facility.

                                 Belleville's Brad Richardson, now a Canuck, with his dad.

Many OHL observers wonder if even half of those fans will opt to support a junior team when they lose the minor-pro Bulldogs.

“I just can't believe a team is gone with so much history,” said Royce. “It's no different than if the Petes left Peterborough.”

March 21. 2015 
From the Intelligencer

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