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What do you do when you’re a great hockey team that’s a bit worn down but has the latest most important game of the year looming on Thursday?

Grind it out on the practice ice? Sit for meetings for hours? Watch endless video of your opposition?

“We went whale watching,” says forward Ryan Winterton.

Yup, the Hamilton Bulldogs went from hockey stick to Moby Dick on Tuesday. Giving their bodies and their minds a break on the waters off Saint John.

No word if they sang a few sea shanties together to further bond an already tight group. Either way, it was undoubtedly a smart move.

The team that lost to the hosts on Monday in their Memorial Cup opener looked like a pale comparison to the Bulldogs team folks around here have watched for the past six months. Yes, the Sea Dogs played well but Hamilton really didn’t.

“I would say we didn’t play our best,” says forward Jan Mysak.

That’s an understatement as large as anything they saw from the boat. Pretty much everything was off. Most of all, the jump that usually separates the Bulldogs from their opposition.

Hamilton has loads of talent. That was driven home on Tuesday when the OHL announced its all-star teams and Nathan Staios was named to the first team, Mason McTavish made the second team, and Arber Xhekaj, Marco Costantini and McKee made the third.

But what’s made them so consistently tough is the work ethic that goes along with it. They win most races to pucks, they backcheck vigorously, they emerge with the puck in most battles along the boards. And they execute cleanly.

Little of that was on display for a large chunk of Tuesday. At least compared to normal.

The players were loathe to discuss it too much — Winterton says he doesn’t want people to think he’s making an excuse — but he acknowledges things were off.

“I think physically we were trying hard,” he says. “But mentally we weren’t there.”

“After watching our players’ legs out there, I think we’re excited to have a couple days off,” head coach Jay McKee said right after the game.

But if anyone thinks the loss dented their confidence at all, they’d be wrong. Mysak says within the dressing room, there are no doubts at all about what will happen Thursday.

Ah yes, Thursday.

Turns out whale watching provides an apt metaphor for what’s looming. This game (6 p.m. Hamilton time on TSN) is every bit as big as those creatures.

Beat the Shawinigan Cataractes in regulation time and they’re in pretty good shape. The worst-case scenario they could face with a victory would be a berth in a tiebreaker game for the final playoff spot.

Win in overtime — which is worth two points instead of the three you get for winning in 60 minutes — and they’re still in a decent place.

But lose and their entire season will come down to one win-or-you’re-done contest Friday night against the Edmonton Oil Kings.

Assuming they’re rediscovered their usual energy, this is a winnable game. Yes, the Cataractes beat the Oil Kings 4-3 on Tuesday but they didn’t appear overwhelming. Good, sure. But the Bulldogs are pretty darn good, too.

Really, the question seems to be all about fatigue. Can they shake it over the span of a couple days? The answer simply has to be yes. So stepping away from hockey for 24 hours was surely the right decision.

Mysak says those whales helped.

“The season is long,” he says. “Today was a good day to have a day off to think about something else.”

This wasn’t his first time looking for cetaceans, mind you. He’s spotted a few whales while fishing with his dad in Norway. Same with Winterton. Not in Norway for him but Boston back when he was 11 or 12.

For the record, Winterton says they did see some this time. It was a fruitful excursion.

Does he remember what kind?

He takes a few seconds to ponder.

“Some type of whale.”

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