Hamilton Bulldogs fight to bitter end in Memorial Cup final defeat in Saint John


Published June 29, 2022 at 8:56 pm

The dozen Hamilton Bulldogs who could be moving on from junior hockey, including Oakville’s Nathan Staios and hometown defenceman Arber Xhekaj, were reminded that not even champions get to win their last game.

Facing far more of a fatigue and injury factor than the hometown Saint John Sea Dogs, the Bulldogs fell 6-3 in the Memorial Cup final at Harbour Station on Wednesday. In their 98th game this season — 13 more than the Sea Dogs, a talented team that somehow lost in the first round of the Quebec league playoffs — the Bulldogs came up snake-eyes from the time they were scored against on the first two shots of the game.

Anaheim Ducks first-round choice Mason McTavish scored two goals, giving him a team-most six goals in five tournament games. Montreal Canadiens prospect Jan Mysak also tallied in his final game for Hamilton. Goalie Marco Costantini saved 21-of-26 shots to finish with a tournament-best .901 save percentage.

The Bulldogs, who will be feted at the Gore Park promenade in Hamilton on Thursday for winning the Ontario Hockey League championship, showed some pushback during the second period and early in the third. But the night belonged to the Sea Dogs, who became the first Maritimes-based Quebec league team to win the Memorial Cup twice. (Saint John also won in 2011.)

The bitter end for Hamilton came 6:32 into the third, when Josh Lawrence, a native New Brunswicker, scored a power-play goal to put the Sea Dogs ahead by three. The tally completed a two-goal swing, coming three minutes after since Sea Dogs goalie Nikolas Hurtubise had made a superb glove save on Hamilton’s Logan Morrison on a rocket shot from the high slot.

From that point, it was inevitable Saint John would be the first team to raise the trophy in 1,127 days. The Memorial Cup was not held in 2020 or ’21 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Riley Bezeau, William Dufour, Cam MacDonald, Peter Reynolds and Vincent Sévigny also scored for Saint John. Dufour, with seven goals in four games, was named tournament most valuable player.

Sévigny broke any big-game tension for the Saint John crowd of 5,849 with a pinball goal 2:35 into the game. His shot hit the stick of Xhekaj and redirected past Bulldogs goalie Marco Costantini. Saint John pounced and MacDonald was wide-open in the slot when he scored at 5:45.

Saint John was 34-4-1 this season when leading after one period. The Bulldogs were 4-9-0 when trailing after one, which is a situation they seldom faced in a season that included a 22-win streak, the OHL title, and team records for wins (51) and points (107).

The Sea Dogs had the second-longest layoff of any host team which won the Memorial Cup. Saint John’s first-round exit in the QMJHL playoffs resulted in a 38-day break. Saint John brought in Gardiner MacDougall, the seven-time University Cup-winning coach of the New Brunswick Reds, as an interim coach for the tournament, and rested and regrouped.

Saint John won more games in the tournament (3) than in the league playoffs (2). Eighteen teams across the Canadian Hockey League won at least five playoff games.

Only the 2017 Windsor Spitfires, who were off for 44 days, had a longer break before hosting and winning the tournament. Coincidentally, Saint John competed in that tournament after winning the Quebec league title.

Going the full seven games in the OHL final against Windsor meant that Hamilton had the shortest turnaround before the tournament. The Edmonton Oil Kings and Shawinigan Cataractes, the Western and Quebec league champions, captured championships a few days earlier. The Bulldogs had just four days between the OHL playoffs and the tournament opener against Saint John on June 20, which the Sea Dogs won 5-3.

The Bulldogs faced elimination after an 0-2 start, with a loss against Shawinigan. They gutted out a 3-2 win against Edmonton last Friday, then defeated Shawinigan 4-3 in overtime in the semifinal on Monday. The Sea Dogs, thanks to finishing in first place in the round-robin, had two more days of rest than Hamilton did before the final.

Long ride for Hamilton

A season-ending loss presumably stings for the organization, whose hockey operations are helmed by general manager Nathan Staios and head coach Jay McKee. Hamilton will have heavy turnover before next season.

Twelve Bulldogs are either 19-year-old veterans or 20-year-old overage players who could be moving on from developmental pro-track hockey.

Along with Nathan Staios and Xhekaj, captain Colton Kammerer is also aging out of the OHL. Costantini, defenceman Gavin White, and seven forwards — Mysak, Morrison, Giordano Biondi, George Diaco, Mark Duarte, Avery Hayes and Ethan Sims — are all 19-year-olds. All are eligible to play one more year in the OHL, but a team can only have three 20-year-olds on the roster.

Following an 18-month pause in OHL play due to COVID-19 protections, the Bulldogs reconvened for the season in late August. Along the way, their strong season helped reacquaint Hamilton hockey fans with junior puck. Hamilton, on top of having a dominant record, but also drew more than 12,000 fans to an outdoor game at Tim Hortons Field in March. They drew an OHL final-record crowd 11,779 to Game 7 against Windsor at FirstOntario Centre on June 22.

The Bulldogs were also in the tournament in Regina in 2018, and lost in the semifinal to the host Pats. Regina, however, was defeated in the final by the Acadie-Bathurst Titan.

MacDougall became the first coach to lead teams to Memorial Cup and University Cup championships.

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