Hamilton Bulldogs capture OHL title in front of league-record crowd


Published June 15, 2022 at 10:07 pm

Mason McTavish celebrates after scoring on Hamilton's first shot in Game 7 of the OHL final. (Photo: Brandon Taylor, OHL Images)

Marco Costantini, Nathan Staios and Arber Xhekaj built an iron ring around the net to make sure the Hamilton Bulldogs proved they are the class of the Ontario Hockey League.

The FirstOntario Centre crowd of 11,779, the most to ever see an OHL final game under the league’s modern format, might not have seen a masterpiece on Wednesday. Hamilton and the Windsor Spitfires had too much intel and too much at stake for Game 7 of the OHL final to become a freewheeling finale. With everyone in Bulldogs black and gold chipping in to support the hometown goalie Costantini, and the 20-year-old defenceman Staios and Xhekaj heading up the stifling of the top Windsor attackers, the Bulldogs delivered a championship to the city with an 6-1 victory.

The result secures the franchise’s second J. Ross Robertson Cup, to go with another in 2018. It also means Hamilton will represent the OHL next week in Saint John at the Memorial Cup, which was not held for the last two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Along with the host Saint John Sea Dogs, the tournament also includes the Edmonton Oil Kings and Shawinigan Cataractes.

Hamilton led from the time Mason McTavish, who racked up 16 playoff goals, scored on the first shot of the game just 2:04 into the contest. Avery Hayes scored a hat trick, and Montreal Canadiens prospect Jan Mysak scored an insurance goal for a 4-0 lead with 6:59 left. Windsor was only able to pull one goal back before the Bulldogs added a couple of empty-netters.

The Bulldogs bottled up Windsor captain Will Cuylle and OHL player of the year Wyatt Johnston, who each had only one shot on goal. Cuylle’s only shot came during a power play. Hamilton’s tight defence in a winner-take-all contest also came without two vital contributors. Captain and defenceman Colton Kammerer was lost for the series after an injury in Game 1. Centre Lawson Sherk, who is a reliable penalty killer, tried to play hurt but was only able to play a single shift.

Xhekaj, a Hamilton native who is also a Canadiens prospect, set up Hayes’ first goal by firing a shot that his teammate tipped in for a 2-0 lead in the second period. The rugged defenceman also kept his cool when a melee broke out after the goal.

Centre Logan Morrison, who had two assists to finish with 39 points in the playoffs, won the Wayne Gretzky 99 Award as most valuable player. Costantini saved 26-of-27 shots.

Once the score was in hand, Kammerer got into uniform so he could accept the championship trophy.

The Spitfires, whose lineup includes Burlington’s Oliver Peer and Dundas’s Jacob Maillet, beat the Bulldogs in games 2, 3 and 6. Last Friday, they were within two minutes of taking a 3-1 series lead when Staios, an Oakville native and the son of Bulldogs general manager Steve Staios, scored a game-tying goal. Gavin White then got the overtime winner to get Hamilton level in the series.

Under coach Jay McKee, a former NHL defenceman, the Bulldogs lost only six games after the January trade deadline. They were undefeated in a regulation time at home, since Windsor’s win at FirstOntario Centre came in overtime.

Five Bulldogs regulars are from Hamilton — Costantini, Xhekaj and forwards Mark Duarte, Patrick Thomas and Ethan Sims. Nathan Staios and backup goalie Matteo Drobac represent Oakville on the roster. Seattle Kraken-drafted forward Ryan Winterton, who returned to the lineup on Wednesday after missing Game 6 with an injury, hails from Whitby.

The crowd was nearly as large as the turnout the Bulldogs got for an outdoor game at Tim Hortons Field on March 14.

The OHL said the crowd was the largest for a game in the final since the league adopted its current format in 1980.

The turnout was also more than 3,000 fans larger than the crowd the Bulldogs had for their title clincher in May 2018. That drew a crowd of 8,663.

Hamilton will face Saint John in the Memorial Cup opener on June 20. They then get a two-day break before facing Shawinigan and Edmonton on June 23 and 24. All three games are 6 p.m. ET starts on TSN and RDS.

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