It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve been to a Sudbury Wolves game, every time the team scores, I instinctively look to the corner of the arena to spot a familiar sight. As the goal horn blares and the crowd erupts in a raucous celebration, a taxidermic wolf emerges from its lair. Suspended from a wire, the creature is operated by a remote control and makes its way along a circuit high above the rafters, pausing just overhead the visiting team’s bench, a visceral reminder that the home team just scored.
Whether it’s your first Wolves game or your 100th, there is something about that mangy wolf that can make even the most curmudgeonly hockey fan crack a smile. It’s a little bit campy, but that’s part of its charm, kind of like Sudbury. But there’s no question about it, it’s one of the most unique and enduring traditions in hockey.
Long before the Sudbury Wolves as we know them joined the Ontario Hockey Association (now the Ontario Hockey League) in 1972, the Sudbury Community Arena had been using a stuffed wolf to celebrate goals for its teams that used the Wolves moniker.
The practice reportedly started in the early 1950s when the Sudbury Star’s sports department donated a taxidermic wolf to the Wolves team that played in the Northern Ontario Hockey Association. The stuffed wolf was a fixture in the club’s dressing room for a number of years, until George Panter, the arena manager, got his hands on it.
Panter, who was looking to get more patrons through the gate, grabbed the wolf and had a trap door installed in the arena control both. When Sudbury scored, the booth operator dropped the creature through the door and a wolf howl record blared from the arena’s loudspeakers. A tradition was born.
It quickly became a fan favourite and even opposing players couldn’t help getting caught up. There’s even a story that when the Montreal Canadiens came to town to play the Wolves for an exhibition game, future Hall of Fame defenceman Doug Harvey supposedly scored on his own net just so he could see the wolf one more time.
When the Wolves joined the OHA in 1972, the custom continued but with a new twist. Rather than emerging from a trap door, the wolf was placed on a clothes line and pulleyed out over the ice.
Eventually the system was automated and the wolf was deployed with a remote control but it was not without its challenges. During the 1980s, one of the team’s owners got over zealous and sent the wolf crashing into the scoreboard and fur and teeth rained down onto the ice, delaying the game.
The stuffed wolf, of course, has also drawn the ire of the opposing team. There have been multiple incidents over the years of rival clubs stealing the beast, perhaps in a vain attempt to thwart the Wolves from scoring. But the wolf always finds its way back to the arena. It is unrelenting, much like the team on the ice that bears its image.
Opposing teams have even tried to turn the tradition on its head and use it against Sudbury. During the 1993 OHL playoffs, the Wolves squared off against the Newmarket Royals in the opening round. When the series shifted to Newmarket, every time the Royals scored, a plush wolf with a noose around its neck dropped from the rafters, followed by the sound of a gunshot over the rink’s public address system. The series went the full seven games, but Sudbury got the last laugh. They defeated the Royals 6-1 at home.
The tradition has evolved throughout the years, as it now has glowing red eyes and emerges from a puff of smoke, but the stuffed wolf remains an inherent part of the Sudbury Wolves experience. Although it has become synonymous with scoring, it means much more than that.
Whenever someone tells me they went to a Wolves game, my initial thought is to measure their experience based on the number of times the home team scored. Sure, a lot of goals usually means that the Wolves won, but it also signals how many times they would have seen wolf summoned from its den.
In my mind, the more times you see that wolf traverse across the rafters the better a time you had at the arena. Even for someone like me, who has been to dozens and dozens of games as both a fan and employee of the team, it doesn’t get old.
While I always still make a point to look for the wolf after a goal, I also make sure to look out across the crowd and see if I can spot that look of wonder on someone’s face who is witnessing it for the first time. It is an unmistakeable expression and worth the price of admission. And for those unfortunate patrons who happened to go to a Wolves game and see the team get shut out, well, that just means you have to go back again to see what all the fuss is about.
For tickets to a Sudbury Wolves game, visit SudburyWolves.com