Top Dogs: Pieces came together on Robertson Cup run
When John Gruden was asked if he was surprised his team was on the cusp of winning the Robertson Cup as OHL champions, the head coach allowed that there was an unexpected element to the Hamilton Bulldogs’ run this season.
But most of all Gruden was happy and a bit sheepish, to say nothing of being honest.
“I knew we were ready to take the next step,” affirmed Gruden thinking back to the becoming of the season before adding sentiment shared by many.
“I’d be lying if I expected to be in first place the (entire) season.”
Despite proving full value for their championship season in their dominating run to face the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the Rogers OHL Championship Series, there was always a sense that the Bulldogs were the surprise of both the regular and post-season.
But, really, should there be any surprise when you look up and down the Bulldogs roster? Nine NHL-drafted/signed players dot Hamilton’s lineup, and there are another handful of undrafted players that were among the Bulldogs’ best at vital times. Speaking generally, the Bulldogs have an impressive collection of size and speed throughout the lineup, with a defining characteristic of being so quick on the puck that opponents often struggle to keep the relenting Steel City attack at bay.
They’re dogged, if you’ll excuse the pun. “We were tested, and our guys always just found a way to win,” said Gruden, pointing out that two series wins over the Niagara IceDogs and then the Frontenacs were much closer than they appeared on paper. Gruden said those series wins laid the framework and foundation by which the Bulldogs eventually used to overcome the Greyhounds, a team that spent large swathes of the season ranked as the Canadian Hockey League’s best team.
Beyond the players, another intriguing element to the Bulldogs is that Hamilton is back in the national conversation when it comes to major junior hockey. The Steel City regained a team when the Bulls moved there from Belleville and were re-christened as the Bulldogs. Veteran NHL rearguard Steve Staios, a Hamilton native, travelled the short distance down the QEW from where he was working as an assistant coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs to run the team as President for its first season in his hometown. Staios installed Gruden behind the bench a year later when he also became GM.
Gruden talked often during the playoffs about the difference between his two training camps in charge. He often cited a more nuanced feeling the second time around that foretold his team’s success. No one player, aside from perhaps mid-season acquisition Robert Thomas, lit up the scoresheet for any sustained period, though Brandon Saigeon (70 points), Matthew Strome (68) and Wll Bitten (64) were notable.Instead, the balanced attack up front is supplemented by rookie Arthur Kaliyev, Marian Studenic, MacKenzie Entwistle and Issac Nurse.
Once the good vibe took hold, around the time 2017 was about to give way to 2018, the Bulldogs added steely veterans Ryan Moore and Nick Caamano, with whom Gruden had a familiarity with from his time behind the Flint Firebirds bench.
“When Steve saw that we had the team that could (contend) he went out and acquired those players,” said Gruden. “I had a (familiarity) with Ryan and Nick and I think that helped them and our team grow.”
That growth included 43 wins and 93 regular season points. With the No. 1 seed sewn up, the Bulldogs lost just one game in each of their first three series to set-up their encounter with the Greyhounds and led most statistical categories on both the offensive and defensive ledgers.
On defence, Benjamin Gleason (48 points) had a strong regular season and was arguably better in the playoffs. captain Justin Lemcke, and Riley Stillman log huge minutes and tough assignments on the blueline with Jack Hanley, Nicolas Mattinen and Connor Walters rounding out an all-round sturdy unit in front of goaltender Kaden Fulcher.
When the Bulldogs dispatched the Frontenacs in five games it allowed the team to take almost a week off, which allowed players being able to go home to their families for a couple days. Gruden repeatedly stressed during the leading up to the Greyhounds series that the “mental reset” was of immense help, specifically citing the first practice session “back to work” had to be dialed back because his charges were champing at the bit to return to action.
The Bulldogs’ run comes 42 years since the Fincups won the 1976 OHL Championship and Memorial Cup. The Bulldogs title run this year also added another demarcation point in the city’s revived major junior hockey lineage that includes hosting the 1986 World Junior Hockey Championship and the 1990 Memorial Cup.
There are other storylines more recent. Strome, the third of three brothers to have played on elite OHL teams since 2011, has an opportunity to gain bragging rights on his siblings.
Oldest brother Ryan lost in the 2011 OHL final while playing for the IceDogs, while Dylan Strome won the league championship with the Erie Otters last season on the way to losing in the Mastercard Memorial Cup where he picked up championship MVP honours.
In a football mad province such as Saskatchewan the name “John Gruden” will resonate as well, as it has for the Minnesota native dating back to his playing days. The hockey coach chuckled when asked about sharing a name with the famous NFL coach/broadcaster, but one thing is certain, whatever unknown quality that he and the Bulldogs had surrounding them at the beginning of the season, has now faded away.
These Bulldogs have made their own name for themselves and so has their coach.
Story contributed by Peter Robinson the Managing Editor of Prospects Hockey.