When their hometown team packs up and leaves, fans have to cast their lots elsewhere. Sometimes, allegiances follow franchises to their new locations—although that’s often too painful, offering constant reminders of the good old days and what was lost. Other times, it proves easier to go an entirely different direction. That’s what I did with junior hockey.
I grew up as a fan of the Toronto Marlies, who could also be the Marlboroughs or the Marlboros depending on your sense of formality. I preferred the Marlboroughs because the name had a royal ring to it and that franchise was royalty, turning out a few Memorial Cup championship teams, including some that will forever remain in the conversation as the greatest in Canadian junior-hockey history. But in the years after the Marlies left, my allegiance didn’t follow them to Hamilton or on to Guelph, and I looked not to teams that remained nearest, like, say, Oshawa. No, instead, I looked a couple of hours east, to the Belleville Bulls.
I’ll admit that it had been a few years since I had been to a junior game when I first walked into Yardmen Arena back in the fall of ’94. At that time, NHL teams were locking out the talent, and arenas — famous and old or new-fangled and history-deficient — were dark. The CHL was the best game still out there being played, one that still felt in proximity to the grassroots rather than like a big business that took for granted the people in the seats. An embittered fan could complain that the old school was being cast aside and not slowly, that a lot of the personality was drifting out of the sport, that one NHL game looked pretty much like another.
Not so in Belleville. There the Bulls had ties to tradition, they were quirky and the game didn’t look the same — not even the rink did. The vast majority of seats at Yardmen Arena were to one side of the ice, rising behind the benches; there were no stands at all behind either net. Given the few seats, including those reserved for the radio crew and reporters, looking across the ice to the benches, Yardmen had nothing remotely symmetrical about it. You wondered if the architect who drew up the plans had ever been to a rink before. And on top of that was the sheet itself: Yardmen had an Olympic-sized ice surface, the thinking evidently being that the game was heading in that direction, that eventually all teams would go to the international standards. Of course, it didn’t play out that way; the sheet was an anomaly and, as such, a tremendous home–ice advantage. “When we first came into the league, after the expansion draft people said we’d be lucky to win five games our first season,” says Larry Mavety, who assumed the duties of coach and GM of the Bulls after having been behind the bench of the Tier II team in Belleville. “The big ice was a game-changer. It really came as a shock to the teams that hadn’t seen it before. You couldn’t race around, trying to run guys or they’d be by you. It really threw off goaltenders. They had so much trouble with their angles.”
In their first season, the Bulls went 24-42-2. They missed the playoffs but were more competitive than any had expected. In their fifth season, led by Jason Lafreniere and Stan Drulia, the Bulls made the league finals, losing in six games to the Guelph Platers, who would go on to take the Memorial Cup. Today, Mavety regards that season as one that barely got away for reasons beyond his control. “Calgary called up Dan Quinn and we would have had Al Iafrate but the Leafs kept him around,” he says. “I had the OHL rights for Pat LaFontaine but he ended up going to the Quebec league. Any one of those guys could have been a difference-maker. With all three, you’d be talking about one of the powerhouse teams.”
By ’94, when I started frequenting the Yardmen, it looked like Mavety had the foundation of a true juggernaut — a young star to build around. I first went out to Belleville to see Dan Cleary, a kid who had left his home in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, at 14 to play minor hockey in Kingston. Cleary was just 15 when he recorded a hat trick and two assists against the Ottawa 67’s in his first major junior game. He barely slowed through his first few months, scoring at a clip of two points a game. “It’s remarkable what he’s managed to do in such a short time,” Mavety told me in ’94. “Just two years ago he was playing non-contact in Newfoundland.”
Cleary had dazzling puck skills and uncanny vision for a junior of any age, and it seemed like putting him on the big ice surface gave him an almost unfair advantage against the defencemen who’d chase him in vain. “That extra space and the time it bought him just gave Dan that extra beat to look to find his teammates,” Mavety remembers today. “He was just able to exploit it more than others, just because of his hockey sense.”
Cleary played on a line with Craig Mills and Brian Secord, a pair of experienced junior players, and to an extent they had to adapt to his skills rather than wait for him to catch up. “[After] that first game, Daniel just took it to another level,” Mills told me in ’94. “There’s something magical about it. He sees the ice so well, Brian and I have to be ready for him to pass from the time we have one leg over the boards.”
In talking to Cleary, I thought he was emotionally equipped for adult stardom. He was confident in his game but without a whiff of arrogance or entitlement. He was smart — a student averaging 90s, he had looked at Michigan and Michigan State as options before committing to Belleville. He was also a lot of fun, a teen quote-machine. I once asked him about the chemistry that he had with Mills and his comeback stuck with me. “We go together like Rice and Krispie,” he said.
It was very early in the conversation, but it looked like Cleary had a chance to be the first-overall pick in the 1997 draft. He was going to win an invitation to the tryout camp for the 1996 world-junior team before he turned 17. Auditions for junior hockey’s biggest stage have been offered to only a handful of 16-year-olds, all of them household names two years hence. Watching Cleary, you had a sense that you were seeing something special. And in those early days, that’s what he was, and many were looking forward to their first chance to see the wunderkind at the under-20 tournament. I remember him being dropped in the last round of cuts the first time he was invited to the world-junior evaluation camp. A few players can hide real disappointment but none can at so tender an age. “They always said that the under-20s was a 19-year-old tournament and when I watch it now, I can see that,” says Cleary, who now works in player development for the Detroit Red Wings. “It still hit me hard.”
It was as if Hockey Canada had somehow clipped Cleary’s wings when he was released. He was still a very good player, still an NHL prospect, but somewhat less than magical. He never developed into the player fans hoped and scouts projected him to be. Cleary wound up being cut twice more from the under-20 team and dropped from the conversation as a No. 1 draft pick, eventually landing 13th overall in the ’97 draft. Some would say that he was less of a player at 19 than he had been in his first trip through the OHL. I always wondered how Cleary’s path might have played out if he had made that under-20 team at 16, even if it were largely as a spectator, like Jason Spezza and Sidney Crosby would do seasons later.
Cleary had a great run in the NHL: more than 900 games and a Stanley Cup with the Wings in ’08. In his early years as pro, though, the consensus was that he was an underachiever, a prospect who took his game for granted and partied too hard. Much to his credit, Cleary got his life in order and became an incredibly useful player for the Wings after a bunch of organizations had given up on him. Along the way he reinvented his game, or at least took on a role that you wouldn’t have imagined for him when he was lighting up the OHL at 16 — that of a gritty, two-way player. “When I tell young guys today that I have been there, I think they understand … they know about my career and my life,” Cleary says.
That might be true, but I doubt that many can really imagine the magic Cleary made happen in his first couple of years in the OHL, what he was able to engineer on that big ice surface at the Yardmen.
Years later, I’d be back at that arena to see another teenager who absolutely commanded your attention every shift: P.K. Subban. In a couple of ways, Subban was the opposite of Cleary; that the former was a defenceman rather than a left winger was only the start of it. Subban came out of the Greater Toronto Hockey League, the development mainstream rather than what was then minor-hockey’s wilderness in Cleary’s Newfoundland. Subban had played with future NHL all-stars since atom. He was regarded as a talent, yes, but he wasn’t freighted with the attention and pressure Cleary was at 15, when Don Cherry was dropping his name on Coach’s Corner.
Like Cleary, though, Subban was a good player in any rink but he took over games whenever I saw him step on the ice at Yardmen Arena. Those who have followed him as a pro know that Subban plays bolder than your average NHL blueliner — he believes in his ability to make plays rather than opting for safe options. That was amplified on the big ice in Belleville. If he ever saw a forechecker he didn’t think he couldn’t beat, it wasn’t in the bunch of games I saw in Belleville. He rushed up the ice with impunity and cycled with barely a glance in the rearview mirror at his pursuers. In terms of strength and speed of skating, Subban would be in the 98th or 99th percentile among NHL defencemen, so you can imagine some poor 16- or 17-year-old giving chase. It seemed like the puck was on Subban’s stick all night long. I asked Belleville’s coach at the time, George Burnett, about reining in his star during the playoffs but he shrugged it off and suggested that trying that would be over-coaching. “That’s just P.K. being P.K.,” Burnett told me.
Likewise, Subban was a great post-game interview, a born talker — the well-spoken, insightful and quick-witted Subban that you know today was fully formed at 18, and on display even after a loss. As Burnett said: “P.K. doesn’t have too many bad days and when he does, it’s hard to tell.” I remember once interviewing Subban following a Bulls win and after five or 10 minutes he had to bolt to catch up to his family. I went with my missus for a bite to eat after the game and Subban and family were at the same pizzeria. He picked up the conversation right where we had left off.
Unlike Cleary, Subban twice landed in the world junior tournament — the first time, lightly used on the ’08 team that beat Sweden in the gold-medal game, then as a cornerstone of the resilient squad that came from behind in the dying seconds against Russia in the semis before cruising past the Swedes again in the final in Ottawa.
Subban passed through the first round in 2007 and watched 16 other defencemen drafted ahead of him before the Canadiens selected him with the 43rd pick. Almost immediately thereafter he unabashedly announced his intention to make the Canadiens lineup out of training camp and lead them to a Stanley Cup. At the time, people regarded it as a punchline, but really it was the prospect’s character distilled. I knew that no slight at the draft could set him back. Far more likely, it would steel his resolve. The one thing that stood out for me about Subban at the time was the degree to which his entire life was focused on success in hockey. He took a college course in kinesiology because he thought it had workplace utility. He read up on the diets of elite athletes. He just kept looking for ways to raise his game. “Everything I do revolves around making the league and being the best player I can possibly be,” he said. “I’m always looking to improve, whether I’m at the rink or away from it.”
The best Bulls team that I saw was the 2007–08 group that Subban led to the Memorial Cup. Having lost only 14 games in regulation during the regular season, Belleville fell to Kitchener in the OHL final and again to the host Rangers in the Memorial Cup semi-finals. In that latter defeat, a 9-0 shutout, Subban went minus-5. But, like I say, he was utterly immune to crises of confidence. There were no cracks in his psychic armour; no single game would prompt him to ask difficult questions about himself. And the next season, in which he racked up 76 points in 56 games, was his best as a junior. As he said, Subban was always looking to improve, not dwelling on weakness or doubt.
The Bulls were sold after the 2014–15 season and, like the Marlboroughs before them, moved to Hamilton. Belleville wasn’t quite the smallest market in the OHL, not with Owen Sound in the loop, but crowds had fallen off. “Back when I had Doug Gilmour on the Tier II team there at the old arena before they built the Yardmen, they’d fill the place,” Larry Mavety says. “There was a real appetite for the game in that town, what with the McFarlands winning the world championships all those years ago. But the game changed, I guess, maybe not for the better.”
These days, the Senators AHL farm club plays out of Belleville on a regulation ice surface. I’m sure many fans have tracked the Hamilton Bulldogs with fluttering hearts. And I’m sure that others have moved on and adopted the Ottawa affiliate as their own — or, at least, they will in time. That large sheet where Dan Cleary made magic happen and where P.K. Subban danced is just a memory. It was a great stage on which to see a phenom who almost slid through the cracks but saved himself and his career; a great stage to see another who will never be denied while always having more fun than anyone else in the building.
I’m still shopping for a new team to call my own.
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