By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Timmins Rock have announced the NOJHL team will retire Steve Sullivan’s No. 26 jersey during a ceremony prior to Sunday afternoon’s game against the Soo Eagles at the McIntyre Arena.
“It is humbling, to be honest,” Sullivan said during a telephone interview from Niagara Falls Thursday afternoon.
“I love the city of Timmins. It is where I grew up and honed my skills for the game of hockey, so to be able to come back and get recognized like this is definitely, like I said, so humbling.”
Technically, Sullivan — widely known as the Timmins Tornado — never suited up for the Rock but he is the franchise’s most famous alumni and is currently a senior advisor with the club.
Sullivan (47, 66-55-121, 141) was the brightest star on the Timmins Golden Bears during the franchise’s inaugural season, 1991-92, in the NOJHL.
Their paths diverged following that initial campaign, with Sullivan moving on to the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and the American Hockey League’s Albany River Rats, before he broke into the National Hockey League with the New Jersey Devils during the 1995-96 season.
Sullivan’s 1,011-game NHL career would see him play for the Devils, Toronto Maple Leafs, Chicago Blackhawks, Nashville Predators, Pittsburgh Penguins, Phoenix Coyotes and Devils.
During that span, Sullivan scored 290 goals and added 457 assists, to finish with 747 points and 587 minutes in penalties.
The Golden Bears, meanwhile, played out of the Archie Dillon Sportsplex in Timmins through the 1998-99 season before relocating to the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls where they became known as the Iroquois Falls Jr. Eskis and then the Abitibi Eskimos.
When Sullivan first donned a Golden Bears jersey during the 1991-92 campaign, he had no idea what the future in store for the franchise or his career.
“No. Neither,” he said.
“I was able to play during the inaugural season. To be able to play in front of so many great fans in a sold-out rink pretty much every time we played is kind of what I envisioned for the team moving forward after I left. I couldn’t think of my career ending up this way. I never in a million dreams would have thought of this, but I am glad the organization was able to come back. The city of Timmins deserves to have a junior team and hopefully the community will continue to support it and give a lot of young hockey players in Timmins the same opportunity I was able to get to continue moving their careers along.”
While the Golden Bears played out of the Archie Dillon Sportsplex, Sullivan has many fond memories of the the Rock’s current base of opperation.
“I am a huge fan of the McIntyre Arena,” he said.
“I consider it to be hallowed ground. It’s a mini version of Maple Leaf Gardens. I played at The Mac during my Timmins Majors midget year and it has just got so much history there and so many great players have played there and honed their skills there.
“It is going to be great. That arena represents Timmins so well. Being able to go around the world and talk to so many hockey people, when we talk about Timmins, we talk about the McIntyre Arena and how special that rink is.”
With the franchise moving back to Timmins for the start of the current 2015-16 campaign and becoming the Rock, it only seemed natural for a reunion to occur.
Team officials contacted Sullivan, who currently serves as a development coach for the now Arizona Coyotes, and he quickly agreed to take on a role as a senior advisor with the team.
Rock president Scott Marshall said: “We were really thrilled that Steve came on board right from the beginning.
“He really believes in what we are trying to do here in Timmins and for him to take time out of his schedule to make a special trip up here to do something for the team, we can’t thank him enough.
“We are really pleased this is happening.”
Indeed, Sunday’s ceremony would likely have taken place earlier if it were not for Sullivan’s busy schedule.
“It had some challenges, trying to be home with the kids, coaching the kids’ hockey and this job, having to go around every once in a while and watching the kids (Coyotes prospects) play,” he said.
“We just tried to work it around the schedule. I am in southern Ontario this week watching our prospects. We were able to work it in with the game on Sunday and it worked out perfect.”
Sullivan was in Erie, watching the Otters play Wednesday night and he was in Niagara Falls Thursday getting ready to watch the Ice Dogs. Friday night he is headed for London to watch the Knights and the Windsor Spitfires play and Saturday night he will be at the University of Michigan to watch the Wolverines play before flying in to Timmins Sunday morning.
“Every night is hockey night,” he joked.
“It’s kind of weird. Yesterday, I watched an afternoon game in Erie and then was able to come back and watch a 7 p.m. NHL game here and then turn on the computer to watch another one of our prospects play out west. It was a full day of hockey.”
Sunday’s jersey retirement festivities will include Sullivan taking part in a centre-ice puck-dropping ceremony and after the conclusion of the game, he — along with current Rock players and coaches, including coach and general manager Paul Gagne, himself a former NHLer — will be on hand in the Molson Canadian Hockey House to sign autographs and chat with fans.
“I am really looking forward to it,” Sullivan said.
“I am glad they were able to set that up. Usually, I only get to come home for a couple of weeks in the summertime, so being able to come back during the hockey season and hopefully see a lot of the youth hockey players will be a great thrill, for sure.”
The Rock players themselves will likely be as thrilled as the fans to get a chance to meet Sullivan.
“I don’t have a lot of contact with the players, that’s kind of Paul’s department, but if I was a 19-year-old hockey player and I got a chance to meet Steve Sullivan, of course I would be excited,” Marshall said.
“They are playing for a franchise that he played for, so for sure, they are going to be excited.”
Sunday will represent Sullivan’s first opportunity to see the Rock play in person.
“It’s going to be fun,” he said.
“It is something I am really looking forward to. It has been a while since I watched a game in Timmins. I think the last time I got to watch a game in Timmins was a midget game during the 2004-05 lockout. It is going to be exciting, especially in that arena.”
Sullivan admitted he will be a little nervous stepping out onto the ice surface of the McIntyre Arena on Sunday.
“The only time I am comfortable in front of bigger crowds is when I have hockey skates on,” he said. “That’s because that’s my environment. That’s what I am used to. Any other time, I have to step outside of my comfort zone and being recognized like this is definitely out of my comfort zone. So I definitely will be a little nervous, for sure.”
Other dignitaries who will be on hand for Sunday’s ceremony include NOJHL commissioner Robert Mazzuca, Marshall and Timmins Mayor Steven Black.
“We will have the jersey in a display case in the lobby, not right away but in the near future, along with other franchise items,” Marshall said.
With Sunday’s ceremony to honour Sullivan and the former NHL star’s availability to sign autographs following the game, the Rock may exceed their largest crowd of the season — 1,046 for the season opener against the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners on Sept. 12.
“That’s what we are hoping,” Marshall said.
“Attendance has been good, but honestly we have been a little disappointed with the size of the crowds up until now. Everybody has been telling us, ‘Well, it’s hunting season. Winter hasn’t really set in.’ So, with a big name like Steve Sullivan, a high-profile alumni member in for a game, we are hoping we will get a big crowd.
“The McIntyre Arena can hold 1,700 comfortably.”
The Rock, averaging 521 fans a game, are actually second in the NOJHL in attendance this season, trailing only the Eagles (626) — Sunday’s opponents.
“We thought we would be averaging between 800 and 1,000 fans a game,” Marshall said.
“The city has a population of more than 40,000 people. Sault (14,098), Mich., is quite a bit smaller than we are, but for whatever reason it has just taken time for Timmins to actually adopt the team.”
As an added incentive to get a big crowd for Sunday’s game, the first 500 fans will receive a special game program redeemable for a free pizza from Boston Pizza.