After every Sudbury Wolves home goal, a familiar sight emerges in the rafters. The crowd bursts into a chorus of cheers, a recorded wolf howl reverberates throughout the building, and a stuffed wolf charts its usual course from a wire in the upper corner of the Sudbury Community Arena. Pausing high above the ice, its presence elicits smiles from patrons seeing it for the first time to those old enough to remember when Mike Foligno once summoned the beast five times in a game against the Peterborough Petes in January 1978. Although it started out as a prop to draw fans to the rink, it has become a key part of the Wolves’ home game experience and the stuff of legends.
The popular tradition has become synonymous with the Wolves, but it actually predates the arrival of the Ontario Hockey Association (now the OHL) to Sudbury in 1972. During the 1953-54 Northern Ontario Hockey Association season, just a few years after the Sudbury Community Arena opened its doors, arena manager George Panter, former president of the OHA, was looking for innovative ways to get fans to flock to the rink for Sudbury Wolves games.
Panter’s ideas for enhancing the fan experience included everything from reorganizing the concession stands and brightening them up with colourful names to offering discounts on candy. He even replaced the Arena’s coffee, which he referred to as “the nearest thing to swamp water,” with a more palatable blend.
While these changes certainly improved things on the concourse Panter’s legacy is undoubtedly in the rafters. In the early 1950s, the Sudbury Star’s sports department donated a stuffed wolf to the team as a token of appreciation. It ended up being a fixture in the dressing room for quite some time until Panter got his hands on it.
After retrieving the taxidermy and attaching some rope to it, Panter installed a trap door in the arena control booth. The next time Sudbury scored a goal at home, the control booth operator shoved the wolf through the door. As spotlights beamed upon the once mighty creature, a wolf howl record blared throughout the arena’s loudspeakers.
It did not take long for the practice to become popular with the fans and even the visiting players. The story goes that, during an exhibition game between the Wolves and the NHL’s Canadiens in the early 1950s, Montreal blueliner, and future Hall of Famer, Doug Harvey was in awe of the spectacle.
After the Canadiens stormed out to a 5-0 lead in the contest, Sudbury finally scored a goal, beckoning the wolf. While the crowd erupted into a resounding cheer, Harvey couldn’t help but stare at the beast above. When play resumed, rather than rushing the puck up the ice, Harvey shot it into his own net. As he skated back to his bench, he reportedly told coach Toe Blake, a Coniston native and member of the 1932 Memorial Cup-winning Wolves, that he was sorry for what he had done, but that “it was worth it to see that wolf again.”
By the time the puck dropped for the Wolves’ inaugural OHA season in Sudbury in 1972, the deployment of the stuffed wolf had changed. Instead of dropping out of the trap door from the control booth, it was mounted to a pulley system that stretched from the far corner of the arena towards centre ice.
The process was similar to a big clothes line, and the wolf had to be rolled out and retracted by hand. Perry Peltomaki, just 15 years old during the first season, did a lot of that work with his friend, Don Burke, who was the son of the team’s owner, Bud. “We had so much fun climbing up into that hot, dusty corner and rolling that wolf out. We would roll it down and pull it back up, and give it a few twitches here and there,” Peltomaki told the Sudbury Wolves in a recent interview.
Despite the dust, the job did have its perks. When Perry and Don weren’t on the line, they had some of the best seats in the house. “We had lawn chairs. We were pretty excited because we thought we had excellent seats to watch the games. Sometimes we would only have to roll the wolf in and out two or three times and we would just watch the game,” Peltomaki recalled.
Today, the process has improved considerably. The stuffed wolf has become automated; there’s no one toiling in that dusty corner of the arena anymore. Gabi Schwabe, a SPAD student at Laurentian University, spent the past season as an intern with the Wolves. In addition to tracking shots and faceoffs during home games, her duties also included operating the wolf.
After each goal, Gabi and her colleagues took turns with the remote that controls both the scoreboard and the wolf. As she explained it, it’s a pretty simple process. “There’s two buttons: wolf out, wolf in. You just hold wolf out when they score and bring it halfway across and then you let it sit there and then you press wolf in and hold it down to bring it back in,” she noted. She is, however, quick to note that it does take some finesse. If you retract it too far back into the corner, it could get stuck, so you have to be careful to release the button just in time.
For someone like Gabi, who went to Wolves games as youngster, having her fingertips on the switch is something that resonates with her. “I remember when I was a kid I would go to the games and I would always hope the wolves would score just so I could see the wolf come out,” she remembered. Pushing the button filled her with nostalgia, but the wider significance of the tradition wasn’t lost on Gabi. “It’s been around for so long, it’s cool to bring it out and connect the current Wolves players with the former players they’ve had. I think it’s a great tradition they have,” she explained.
The practice has changed over the years, evolving from the trap door drop to the high-wire act that most fans are familiar with today, but the sentiment remains the same. While some curmudgeons may see the tradition as campy, it is unquestionably unique and has become engrained into the team’s identity. More importantly, it has become an integral part of the Wolves experience. You can’t help but smile when you spot that unmistakable look of wonder on the face of a young fan attending their first Sudbury hockey game.