From September of 1984 to March of 1987, the Sudbury Wolves lost 123 games. During that same span, they tasted victory all of 66 times. If you include the first few months of the 1987-1988 campaign, the local juniors would welcome no less than six different head coaches behind the bench during that stretch of time.
Crowds at the old barn on Elgin Street often numbered no higher than three digits. Yet through it all, one player rose above the rest, somehow providing Wolves' faithful with the belief that the price of a ticket was a worthwhile expenditure, if only to watch him play.
Mario "Tiger" Chitaroni was a 5'7" blend of grit and skill. Selected in the 6th round of the 1984 OHL Entry Draft, the Cobalt native somehow amassed no less than 211 points in those three years, along with 407 minutes in penalties, frequently borne out of frustration.
Ironically, the combative crowd favourite, who went on to play professionally in both the AHL and IHL, along with an even lengthier European stint in Italy and Germany, did not see Sudbury as even an option as he starred with the New Liskeard Cubs juvenile squad in his final year of minor hockey.
"I thought for sure I was going to North Bay," stated the 53 year-old OPP police constable, who now calls that city home. "Bert Templeton (then coach of the Centennials) saw every game I played that year, and I was the top scorer in the juvenile league by 50 points."
Yet it was Sudbury that would nab the younger of two boys in the Chitaroni family, making him the 76th overall selection, with local products Marc Laforge (2nd rd - Kingston), Joe Ranger (2nd rd - London), Robin Rubic (2nd rd - Kitchener), Scott McCrory (4th rd - Oshawa) and Brent Battistelli (4th rd - Peterborough) all comfortably preceding the future Olympian.
"I remember a couple of things distinctly," said Chitaroni, reminiscing about his first training camp. "When I met the trainer, the first thing I asked was for my equipment." Apparently, that kind of request was not at all typical for a 6th round pick. Of course, Tiger Chitaroni was not just any 6th round pick.
"The first scrimmage that we had, I got in a fight," he recalled. "That was probably my first fight, at any level. But I wasn't intimidated by it; I just felt that was part of the game. It's not like I shied away."
Through three turbulent years in Sudbury, Chitaroni put his head down and forged forward, universally respected for a work ethic that ranks among the very best ever witnessed in a Wolves uniform. And though things did not work out in terms of a farewell tour as a junior overager, his fondness for the city he left behind remains apparent to this day.
"The Burgess family took over the team that year (1986-1987), and thank goodness they did," said Chitaroni. "Things got better almost immediately. It was unfortunate for the players who were there, because it was too little, too late for them."
Finishing off that season with the Flint Spirits (IHL), Chitaroni scored five goals in six playoff games, helping to earn himself a tryout the following fall with the Buffalo Sabres. "I had a great camp," he said. "No word of a lie, I thought I could play there. But they had so many guys under contract."
And with undersized forwards an absolute NHL anomaly, at the time, Chitaroni found himself doing some serious soul searching a couple of years later - albeit soul searching within a financial template that is far different than today.
"Do I go back to New Haven at $28,000 a year and pay for everything, or do I sign in Italy, where my contract was $50,000 US, after taxes, and I only played 36 games," pondered the young prospect. "I was clearing more money in Italy than I would have grossed in the NHL."
"People don't understand that. There really was no money in the NHL until 1994. That's the reality. In Italy, you had a bunch of billionaires who all owned teams and loved to compete against each other. There was a saying, at that time, that it was better to be in Europe than in the minors."
"You had your standard contract, plus your car, your apartment and your flights," Chitaroni added. "And you usually had a beautiful place to stay. When I played in Milan (1993-1994 and from 2002 to 2007), Monte Carlo was two hours away, like going from Sudbury to Bracebridge."
"We would head down, on the off days, gamble a bit, have a great dinner and drive back."
Throw in 14 World Championship appearances for Team Italy and a pair of Olympic Games, and one could understand the lure. Now add in a wife that he met while playing in Germany (1996-2002), a couple of children along the way, and family priorities begin to supersede dimming NHL hockey dreams.
"After a certain amount of time, your focus just changes and you relegate yourself to the fact that this is your path," he said. And on the off-chance that this reality found him longing for something more, along would come the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino (Italy). "It's only about an hour from Milan, so my brother came over, a lot of the people who watched us play in Italy came to watch us."
"We had almost unlimited access to everything in the city, met a bunch of celebrities. For opening ceremonies, we marched out last. Just being there live, at the opening and closing ceremonies - the TV never does it justice."
During his final few years in Europe, Chitaroni began the process of preparing to apply for work in policing, eventually spending five years in Elliot Lake before making his way to North Bay not all that long ago. At least a small handful of folks, it appears, recalled his junior hockey playing days.
"I would run into people from Sudbury who might remember me and they would love me, then I would run into people from North Bay and they hated me," he said with a laugh.
Tiger to some, Cheap Shot Chitaroni to others - either way, he had a style all of his own. "I think playing half as many games (in Europe) helped me play until I was 41, but I basically played the same type of game as in junior - and my body feels it, I can tell you that."
And for that, Wolves fans from that era thank him. Mario Chitaroni would help make many a game far more watchable.