By Bruce Heidman, Sudbury Star.
Dario Zulich stood under a big banner adorned with three simple words to announce a change in ownership for Sudbury’s flagship sports franchise.
A New Era the banner read, a pair of piercing wolf eyes staring over the block letters and out at the jam-packed press conference at Sudbury Community Arena.
The Sudbury Wolves officially have a new owner as of late last Friday as Zulich, a Sudbury born and raised businessman, purchased the franchise from Mark Burgess and his family, who had owned the championship-starved OHL outfit for 30 years.
A basketball player from his youth to his university days at Western, Zulich is the first to admit he has little experience with hockey. However, he is eager to learn and turn the Wolves into a winner, and said he will put the right people in place to improve the team’s fortunes.
“People ask me what I know about hockey, and one of my best characteristics is that I am self aware that I don’t know much about hockey and I am conscious about that, and being conscious of that, I will surround myself with good people that know good hockey,” he said. “I plan on being an owner, and if I have learned one thing it is that owners own, executives execute strategic plans, managers manage, coaches coach, trainers train and players play, and as long as we stick to our roles we are going to have an awesome organization.
“I have a vision and a destination, and a little at a time the whole organization is going to see it,” he added. “It is my job to make sure they see it and feel it and move toward it, and I believe we are on our way. Today is Day 2.”
Zulich highlighted three areas of focus to bolster the Wolves’ fortunes in the standings and the stands.
“This is a new era for the Sudbury Wolves and the objectives of the franchise are clear,” he said. “Number one, the Wolves organization will work hard to be a model OHL franchise and become a preferred destination for aspiring young hockey players. We want our players to learn the game, improve their skills, develop as young men and become outstanding members of our community. Number 2, we want to win and we want to win consistently year in and year out. We want to be Memorial Cup contenders. And lastly, No. 3, we will operate a world-class hockey operation, one everyone in the city will be proud of. We realize the fans are an important part of creating a winning team … without loyal fans there would be no Wolves, and I would like to thank all who have supported the Sudbury Wolves over the years.”
Zulich, the driving force behind the proposed True North Strong Centre, which hopes to build a new arena/event centre on the Kingsway on property he shares with Perry Dellelce, said he had been interested in purchasing the Wolves for the last two years.
“We bought the Wolves because I really want to do something for this community,” he said. “If (a new arena) happens to be on our site, that’s great, if it is not on our site, it doesn’t matter. The Wolves will stay and will play wherever the city puts the arena.”
“While I believe that the best location for a new event centre is on our location on the Kingsway, I would like to emphasize that should the city decides to build an arena elsewhere, the Wolves will be its greatest tenant, and if the city wants to build a coliseum, the Wolves will be its greatest warrior.”
Zulich led a toast to the new ownership with a room filled with former players, former owners, local hockey executives from other organizations, sponsors and well wishers.
“This is a milestone and I will always remember this day for the rest of my life and I am looking forward to this chapter,” Zulich said.
Hockey Canada chairman Joe Drago, a former part owner of the franchise and a former Wolves GM, applauded the change in ownership.
“As I said to Dario, when I sold the team to Mr. Ken Burgess, it was time for a change, and it is certainly time for a change right now,” he said. “Things have been pretty grim and a sour note throughout the community whenever you talk to anyone about the team, so it is time for a change and I think Dario has the passion to succeed and he is a man of Sudbury and the area, and I like his idea of the event centre and I hope it comes to fruition, but yes, it was time for a change and I am very pleased to see it happen.”
Local ownership is the key, Drago said.
“You can’t have a landlord that drifts in and out, and you need that stability and you need people to feel you are part of them, and I think with Dario and his family and the operation outside of hockey, there is evidence he is a local guy,” he said.
Drago expects the team’s makeup to morph slowly during the season.
“First and foremost, it is the people you have in your organization you are judged by at the league and community level, and he will have to decide whether to retain the entire group or make changes, and I am sure he is speaking with people and will make decisions,” Drago said. “When you first get into an organization like this, you can’t fly by the seat of your pants and push everyone out the door. It takes some time, and Dario is not fully versed in hockey and he needs some direction and mentoring and I am sure as you do that you realize who within the organization should stay and who shouldn’t.”
Zulich came to the press conference looking athletic after losing 30 pounds during the summer.
“I know that I need to be physical and mentally well to do this, and I am committed to it body and soul,” he said. “I believe in discipline, and that transcends to the office and into the team, and this team and organization will be led on the values of integrity, discipline and intelligence.”