They out-played and out-chanced the host Regina Pats in the semi-final match of the 2018 Memorial Cup championship tournament. And while the 2017-2018 season ended for the Hamilton Bulldogs with a 4-2 loss, it was a very good run for the Ontario Hockey League champions.
A regular-season record of 43-18-7 produced 93 points en route to a first-place finish in the Eastern Conference for the Bulldogs, who then put together a spectacular playoff performance.
Hamilton won the Eastern Conference playoff title with consecutive five-game series wins over the Ottawa 67s, Niagara IceDogs and Kingston Frontenacs. But the best was yet to come for head coach John Gruden and his relentless Bulldogs.
Against all odds, Hamilton stunned the heavily favoured, Western Conference champion Soo Greyhounds in a six-game set to win the OHL championship. Included in the Bulldogs series conquest of the Greyhounds — who had finished first overall during the regular season with 116 points from a record-setting record of 55-7-6 — were two road victories in Sault Ste. Marie.
The championship series proved to be a dandy and was tied at two games apiece through the first four matches.
After Hamilton stole the opener in the Soo, a 4-3 overtime decision, the Greyhounds rebounded with a 4-2 home ice victory. The series then shifted to Hamilton for Games 3 and 4 where the Bulldogs won 6-5 before the Greyhounds evened the set with a 3-2 overtime triumph.
With momentum seemingly on their side as the Greyhounds headed home for Game 5, the Bulldogs stole another win in the Soo, a 6-4 victory. Hamilton then won the OHL championship at home, a 5-4 win in Game 6 before more than 8,600 fans at the FirstOntario Centre.
Greyhounds head coach Drew Bannister was more than gracious in defeat, saying “the better team won the series.”
In all, the Hamilton followed up its 43-18-7 regular season record with a playoff mark of 16-5 en route to winning the OHL championship. The Bulldogs then had a record of 2-2 at the Memorial Cup tournament, including the semi-final loss to Regina.
Overall, the Bulldogs record for 2017-2018 — regular season, playoffs and Memorial Cup tournament included — was 61-25-7.
Just as impressive as the Bulldogs spectacular season was the manner in which the team managed to win over fans, supporters and sponsors in such a big way in Hamilton, which had seen several OHL teams come and go in past years.
On the ice, the aforementioned Gruden did a masterful coaching job in leading the Bulldogs to the OHL championship.
In his second year as Hamilton’s head coach, the unflappable Gruden — who gained infamy by being fired, re-hired and fired again by the OHL Flint Firebirds during the same season, the 2015-2016 campaign — was able to adapt to the many new players that Bulldogs general manager Steve Staios brought in to Hamilton.
And what a great job Staios did in providing Gruden with a team that showed its strength and capability in knocking off the high-scoring, high-flying Greyhounds to win the OHL championship.
A Hamilton product who was born and raised in the gritty southern Ontario steel town, Staios shows obvious pride in his roots and where he comes from.
Read his quotes in the Hamilton newspaper, listen to him talk about the Bulldogs on radio and television. The passion that he has for his town and his team just emanates from him.
This is a guy, Staios, who breathes and bleeds black-and-gold to the extent of having changed the Bulldog colours from red-white-and-blue to the scheme that better represents his hometown in the legendary image of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League.
In just his second season as Bulldogs GM — he is also team president and does a lot of promotional work in Hamilton on behalf of the franchise — Staios managed to put together an OHL championship squad through shrewd and calculated moves.
Amazingly, more than half of Hamilton’s 2017-2018 championship roster was the result of trades.
Among those who became Bulldogs via the trade route were starting goalie Kaden Fulcher, plum defensemen Benjamin Gleason, Riley Stillman and Nicolas Mattinen and high-end forwards Robert Thomas, Nicholas Caamano, Ryan Moore and Will Bitten.
To be sure, it did not take the 44-year old Staios long to get to know the OHL as a GM and to excel at his job to the point of putting together a championship team in calculated order and in such a short period of time.
OHL HISTORY IN HAMILTON
The OHL officially returned to Hamilton in 2015 when the Bulldogs took the place of the relocated Belleville Bulls.
To be sure, hockey hysteria, OHL style, took over Hamilton this season like it never did before.
Since Belleville relocated to Hamilton in 2015, aforementioned Bulldogs president and general manager Steve Staios has used his tireless Macedonian work ethic to create an identity for the OHL in his hometown.
A former first round pick to the OHL by the erstwhile Niagara Falls Thunder who went on to play in more than 1,000 games in the National Hockey League as a journeyman defenseman, the steely-eyed Staios has shown administrative skill as the Bulldogs president and a shrewd hockey mind as the general manager.
As the OHL had not experienced in Hamilton before, the Bulldogs became the talk of the town en route to wearing the crown of champions.
Though Hamilton has a history of OHL success on the ice — the Red Wings won the Memorial Cup in 1962 and the Fincups reprised the feat in 1976 — teams over the years have not come close to enjoying the fan and corporate support that the Bulldogs did in 2017-2018.
Plagued by poor attendance, OHL teams and monikers have come and gone from Hamilton over the years.
There were the Hamilton Tiger Cubs from 1953-1960 followed by the Hamilton Red Wings from 1960-1974 and the Hamilton Fincups from 1974-1978. (The Fincups even left Hamilton for St. Catharines for one season only to return and then leave for good.)
Six years after the Fincups closed up shop, the Hamilton Steelhawks took to the ice in 1984 only to depart in 1988. Then came the Hamilton Dukes in 1989 and a quick exit in 1991.
The OHL vacated Hamilton after the Dukes relocated to Guelph and became the Storm in 1991. And the OHL went dormant in Hamilton until 2015 when owner Michael Andlauer purchased the Belleville franchise.
And with the Bulldogs as 2017-2018 champions, the OHL has certainly made a triumphant return to Hamilton, on and off the ice.
Take a bow, Bulldogs.
PHOTO: The 2018 OHL champion Hamilton Bulldogs.