Johnny Wilson: His Cymbals Go Silent

This story was published in the Winter 2023 issue of Total Sports Quinte magazine

Story by Jeff Gard/Total Sports Quinte

Johnny Wilson was known as The Cymbal Man.

Wilson, with his tremendous showmanship with crashing cymbals while walking up and down the stairs in the stands, was a fixture at home games of the former Belleville Bulls OHL club for 25 years. He passed away on Dec. 27, 2022 at the age of 80.

Len Ellwood and his wife Colleen met Wilson at a Bulls game more than 20 years ago.

“We got talking to him afterwards and through the chatter realized that we only lived a few blocks apart,” he said.

Wilson didn’t drive so the Ellwoods offered to take him to and from games as they were season ticket holders. As they approached his house each time, they wondered what costume Wilson would be dressed in for that night’s game. For all they knew he could be dressed as Rod Stewart, Elvis Presley, Bob the Builder, Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Sponge Bob, Davy Crockett or some other person or character.

“His daughter told us he had over 200 costumes,” Ellwood said, noting the story of ‘Cymbal Man’ began around the time Wilson took his daughter Angie to a Bulls game when she was in high school.

“He went to a game and apparently he was falling asleep at the game, much to Angie’s chagrin. Some people had cowbells, even back then, and so the next game, Angie played the drums, so Johnny took one of her sticks and a pie plate and that’s the way he started.”

Ellwood has a wealth of memories transporting Wilson to and from the games.

“We had a lot of fun. We would go to the game, Johnny would like us to pick him up an hour prior to the game so that he could get over and socialize with his fans, not the Belleville Bulls fans, his fans,” Ellwood said with a laugh, just reminiscing about it. “Then we would be, I’m going to say, 45 minutes to an hour getting out after the game because he always had time for old and young alike for posing for pictures.”

Ellwood recalled being in the parking lot following a game against Kingston and there being two fan buses supporting the visiting team. Wilson socialized with the fans and they begged him to go on the bus to Kingston and perform at their home game the following day. An offer of a hotel room and meals wasn’t enough to entice Wilson. He didn’t go. His loyalty was with the Bulls.

“He was at all the home games and even went on the road a few times,” Ellwood said. “When we played Oshawa the one year in the finals, he went up on the bus and they wouldn’t let him take his cymbals in.”

Ellwood said it was devastating when the Bulls organization was relocated to Hamilton in 2015, but Wilson started attending and performing at the home games of the Ontario Junior Hockey League’s Wellington Dukes.

When Belleville got the American Hockey League’s Senators, affiliate of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators, Wilson thought he might perform at CAA Arena (the renovated arena that was known as Yardmen Arena when the Bulls played there), but never enjoyed the same relationship he had with the Bulls.

Ellwood says he argued unsuccessfully to Sens staff that Wilson should receive free admission because he didn’t need a ticket as he was never in a seat. He would move around the arena throughout the games.

“He’s great for morale and team spirit. Everybody in the building knows he’s there. As soon as the home team scores, there was no wondering if Johnny’s here tonight,” Ellwood said. “He did a few Sens games, but primarily stuck with his adopted Wellington Dukes team. He went to the odd Trenton Golden Hawks games as well, especially when Wellington was playing in Trenton.”

The Dukes honoured Wilson prior to their Jan. 6 home game. The club welcomed members of his family to participate in a pre-game ceremony.

“He loved life, he was an entertainer and he loved people,” Ellwood said.