Hail to the OHL champs


Randy Russon
By
May 14, 2018

The team that deserved to win the Ontario Hockey League championship did just that. As good as the Soo Greyhounds were, the Hamilton Bulldogs were better.

Painting a picture of a six-game sketch, Hamilton was healthier, hungrier, more determined, more consistent and displayed more energy than the Soo.

Thus, despite finishing with 23 fewer points than the top-ranked Soo over the course of the 2017-2018 regular season, Hamilton stole a pair a road victories en route to winning the championship series four games to two.

To be sure, the Bulldogs took an easier path to the finals. Through the first three rounds of the playoffs, Hamilton needed just five games in each series to upend the Ottawa 67s, Niagara IceDogs and Kingston Frontenacs.

The Greyhounds, though, after sweeping the Saginaw Spirit in four straight in the opening round, were subsequently extended to seventh-and-deciding games by both the Owen Sound Attack and Kitchener Rangers. And against Hamilton, it was almost as if the Soo looked tired and hungover from a pair of Game 7 victory parties.

One also has to wonder if a mid February, regular-season match between the two teams provided extra motivation for Hamilton in the championship series.

Recall, if you will, after Hamilton scored a 5-2 home-ice win over the Soo in a nationally-televised game, the Greyhounds rebounded a week later with a 10-0 thrashing of the visiting Bulldogs. In the 10-0 romp, the Soo tacked on to an inevitable victory with two late power play goals in what gave appearances of rubbing it in the faces of Hamilton.

That aside and despite the fact that Hamilton took a playoff record of 12-3 into the championship series as opposed to the Soo’s 12-6 mark, few gave the Bulldogs much of a chance to upend the mighty Greyhounds and win the OHL title.

In fact, the only two media people I know of who actually picked the Bulldogs to beat the Greyhounds were me and Bill Toffan of Hamilton radio station KX-947-FM.

But adhering to the master game preparation and management of head coach John Gruden, the Bulldogs shrugged off the odds to upend the favoured Greyhounds and give Hamilton its first OHL championship since the erstwhile Fincups of 1976. The Bulldogs clinched the crown in front of a hometown, Sunday matinee crowd of 8,660 — and thousands more who watched the televised game on Sportsnet.

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 done by Staios in providing Gruden with a team that showed its strength and capability in knocking off the high-scoring, high-flying Greyhounds, who had posted a gaudy regular-season record of 55-7-6 to finish atop the OHL standings.

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 en route to a regular season record of 43-18-7 and subsequent playoff mark of 16-5.

Amazingly, more than half of Hamilton’s roster is the result of trades.

Among those who became Bulldogs via the trade route are 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. Of note, Mattinen, Caamano, Moore and Bitten were all acquired in separate trades with Flint.

To be sure, it hasn’t taken 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. That was then, this is now.

The return of the OHL to Hamilton was punctuated with an exclamation mark in Game 6 of the championship series when more than 8,600 fans clicked the turnstiles at FirstOntario Centre to watch the Bulldogs upend the Soo Greyhounds 5-4 to win the championship.

To be sure, hockey hysteria, OHL style, has taken over Hamilton like never 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 44-year old Staios has shown administrative skill as the Bulldogs president and a shrewd hockey mind as the general manager.

As the OHL has not felt in Hamilton before, the Bulldogs have become the talk of the town as they now wear 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 have.

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.

Now, with the Bulldogs as champions, the OHL has indeed made a triumphant return to Hamilton, on and off the ice.

Hail to the OHL champs from Hamilton.

PHOTO: Members of the Hamilton Bulldogs celebrate the OHL championship. (Photo by Aaron Bell.)


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