By Ben Leeson, Sudbury Star.
The Sudbury Wolves have entered a new era.
The Ontario Hockey League announced on Friday that the local OHL franchise, owned by the Burgess family since 1986, will be sold to Sudbury businessman Dario Zulich, pending approval of the league’s board of governors.
“Official transfer of ownership is pending league approval and will be addressed at the next scheduled meeting of the Ontario Hockey League board of governors, taking place Aug. 17-18, 2016,” the OHL said in a press release. “The league and the Sudbury Wolves will not be making any further comment on this matter until completion of the board of governors meeting in August.”
Rumours have swirled for months that principal owner Mark Burgess might soon sell the team, and those intensified in recent weeks, but nothing was confirmed prior to the OHL’s announcement.
“I am very pleased to have entered into an agreement with the Burgess and Edwards families on the purchase of the Sudbury Wolves, an organization that is such an important part of our community,” Zulich said in a statement. “Out of respect for the approval process of an ownership transfer within the Ontario Hockey League, which includes a confidentiality clause, I will not comment further on this matter until the league’s board of governors takes action on this in mid-August.”
Reached on Friday afternoon, Burgess said he would comment after the sale is approved.
Terms of the sale or the agreed-upon price have not been revealed.
Zulich is the CEO of TESC Contracting Company and a partner in Zulich Enterprises. He and business partner Perry Dellelce have frequently been in the news during the last several months, as they’re key members of a group hoping to build a replacement for the aging Sudbury Community Arena at a site on the Kingsway.
Joe Drago, a former part-owner and general manager of the Wolves who now serves as chair for Hockey Canada, has voiced support of the arena proposal put forth by a group that includes Zulich, Dellelce and Andrew Dale, dubbed the True North Strong Sports and Entertainment Centre.
Drago welcomed Friday’s news and said the time was right for a change in ownership.
“My reaction is, reading and hearing the cry from the community that they wanted change, that they wanted to see something happen soon, because crowds have been dropping off and interest has been dropping off – even in my travel, I get a lot of questions like what’s wrong with the Wolves, why are things so bad – I think the sale was very wise by the Burgess family,” Drago said.
“What I would like to see is the team turn around and be competitive. In the years that I have been involved in hockey in this community – not just with the Wolves, but all kinds of hockey –this town is very supportive, it’s a hockey community, but they want to see you do down fighting. They want a competitive team and they don’t expect you to win the championship or the Memorial Cup year after year, but they expect you to go out and play with some pride and dignity, to win hockey games and to make the city proud of the team that is representing them.”
Ken Burgess, Mark’s father and a successful local businessman, bought the struggling franchise from a group of owners in November 1986 and helped turn the team’s fortunes around after several losing seasons.
Ken Burgess died in 1998 and Mark became the principal owner. The Burgesses were honoured by the OHL in 2011 for 25 years operating the team.
The Wolves joined the league in 1972 and had several successful seasons, including a run to the final in 1976.
The 1980s were less kind, however, as the Wolves missed the post-season for five straight years between 1980 and 1985. Their 1982-83 season, during which they managed just 30 points, was the poorest in franchise history until 2014-15.
There were serious doubts about the team’s viability before Ken Burgess stepped in and hired Sam McMaster as GM. McMaster helped lead the Wolves back to respectability with six straight post-season berths between 1990 and 1995, including a trip to the conference final.
Another highlight came in 2007 when, with Mike Foligno as coach and GM, the Wolves went on a Cinderella run to the league finals, only to come up short once again.
Sudbury fell on hard times again the past two seasons. The Wolves posted a worst-ever 26-point season in 2014-15, including a record-breaking losing streak, and attendance continued to decline.
They missed the playoffs again in 2015-16, but the emergence of several talented young players helped boost optimism about the coming campaign.
Gord Ewin, one of the Wolves’ first season ticket holders, a former part-owner and executive and current player education director, had heard rumours of a possible sale, but like many was surprised by Friday’s announcement.
“All I want to see is the franchise be here in Sudbury,” Ewin said. “It’s local ownership again, which is great.”
He called the Burgess family “great owners.”
“They did so much for the community,” Ewin said. “They treated players well and anybody connected with the club was treated well. I know I certainly was.”
Asked what makes a good OHL owner, Ewin identified a willingness to work in concert with fellow clubs.
“They have to be good partners, most of all,” Ewin said. “Though the teams are all competitive, they have to do things for the benefit of the league. I’m sure the new owner will be that type of person. They also have to promote the team within the city and you need a winner. Whatever you do, people respond to a winning team and I’m sure the new owners coming in will try and do that and will understand that.”