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Watch Hamilton Bulldogs celebrate 6-1 win at FirstOntario Centre

The beauty, and stress, of driving deep into the playoffs is that the road never gets smoother.

So, less than 24 hours after eliminating the fleet and resilient Windsor Spitfires, the Hamilton Bulldogs had to smash their rear-view mirror and look directly ahead at the other three Memorial Cup finalists awaiting them in Saint John, N.B.

The Bulldogs qualified for their second national major junior championship tournament in four years with a thorough 6-1 victory in Game 7 of the Ontario Hockey League final Wednesday, sending 11,779 roaring fans at FirstOntario Centre into a prolonged frenzy.

Windsor's Daniel D'Amico can only kneel and watch as the Hamilton Bulldogs celebrate their second OHL Championship Wednesday.
Windsor’s Daniel D’Amico can only kneel and watch as the Hamilton Bulldogs celebrate their second OHL Championship Wednesday.John Rennison

“This is for our fans and for our city,” said Bulldog owner Michael Andlauer, whose commitment to elite hockey here has resulted in the 2018 and 2022 OHL championships and the 2007 American Hockey League title. “Our city is going to be represented across the country and that’s important.

“I’m kind of glad we lost in Windsor (Monday’s Game 6) so our fans could see us win this at home. The next Cup is just the cherry on the top.”

The next Cup is the Memorial, an ancient beaker named for the Canadian soldiers who perished in the First World War. It’s been presented every year since 1919, except the last two when the pandemic forced the tournament’s cancellation.

Hamilton Bulldogs pose with the cup following their 6-1 win over Windsor.
Hamilton Bulldogs pose with the cup following their 6-1 win over Windsor.The Hamilton Spectator

“Being off as long as we were because of COVID and with the adversity from injuries that we faced in this run compared to 2018, I mean it’s just so special,” said team president and general manager Steve Staios.

Hamilton opens the round-robin on Monday night against the host Saint John Sea Dogs who have been idle since they lost in the first round of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs six weeks ago.

On Thursday, the Bulldogs face the Shawinigan Cataractes, who won their first-ever QMJHL championship with two straight upsets of favoured teams. And on Friday, they’ll meet the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings in a much-anticipated battle of the only surviving teams from the Canadian Hockey League’s top 10 end-of-season rankings.

The round-robin’s top team advances to the final on Wednesday, June 29, the bottom team is eliminated and the two others meet in the national semifinal Monday, June 27.

“I haven’t even looked at the teams yet, but I’m super excited,” said 17-year-old Bulldog Patrick Thomas, the youngest player on the team who has blossomed into a steady top-six forward and set up Mason McTavish’s game-opening goal on Wednesday night.

“I’ve come to the games at this arena ever since they were in the AHL, so it means the world to me to be able to celebrate an OHL championship at home.”

The top comes off the J. Ross Robertson Cup as Hamilton Bulldog captain as Colton Kammerer carries it to the team after they defeated Windsor 6-1 win in game 7 of the OHL final.
The top comes off the J. Ross Robertson Cup as Hamilton Bulldog captain as Colton Kammerer carries it to the team after they defeated Windsor 6-1 win in game 7 of the OHL final.The Hamilton Spectator

Player after player pointed to Andlauer, Staios and head coach Jay McKee for the tone they set for the franchise in drafting, developing and trading for “character guys.”

The Bulldogs have been without shutdown defenceman Colton Kammerer and he’ll also miss the Memorial Cup, and they didn’t have important scorer Ryan Winterton for Game 6, and the league’s most valuable defenceman Nathan Staios for the first three games. Others, like Jan Mysak, were obviously playing hurt.

But they neutralized the Spits’ dominant duo of Wyatt Johnston and Will Cuylles in Game 7, and finally potted the couple of pull-away goals — third period markers by Avery Hayes, with his second of three, and Mysak on a great play by Hamilton native Arber Xhekaj — which allowed them to squash any Spitfire notion of mounting one of their typical quick rallies.

“The puck hadn’t bounced my way all series, so to have this happen in Game 7 was incredible,” Hayes said during the Bulldogs’ jubilant hour-long celebration on the ice. “We had run-ins with the refs, we had injuries and other adversity but it was something we dealt with all year. Steve Staios did a great job building this team.”

Andlauer also praised Staios and his staff for assembling a varied unit which has now won 67 of the 87 games they’ve played in 2021-22.

“Steve’s my brother from another mother,” Andlauer laughed. “He’s a mastermind.”

They were rewarded with a second OHL title and a final-game crowd which was the most to ever see a Bulldogs’ game at FirstOntario Centre and largest to see a game in an OHL championship series since the junior league rebranded itself in 1980. The only larger (12,587) was the audience at March’s Outdoor Showcase at Tim Hortons Field.

Wednesday, Hamilton native Marco Costantini was solid in net and McTavish had a pair of goals. Both he and Hayes scored insurance goals into the empty net. They combined with playoff MVP Logan Morrison on a first line which set the 200-foot pace from the opening faceoff.

MVP Bulldog Logan Morrison with the trophy following his team's win over Windsor 6-1 win in game 7 of the OHL final.
MVP Bulldog Logan Morrison with the trophy following his team’s win over Windsor 6-1 win in game 7 of the OHL final.John Rennison

Monday night, the Bulldogs will encounter a hostile home crowd and a team which finished third in the QMJHL but lost their opening playoff round. Bizarrely, they fired their coach — former AHL Bulldog Gordie Dwyer — even though they were hosting the tournament. UNB men’s team coach Gardiner MacDougall has taken over behind the bench until after the Cup tournament.

The Shawinigan Cataractes finished seventh overall but won their first league championship by beating, No. 1 Quebec, then Charlottetown in the finals. Shawinigan has won all of six of its playoff overtime games, including three in the final. Mavrik Bourque, a first-round choice of The Dallas Stars, was second in the QMJHL playoffs with 25 points.

Edmonton has been a powerhouse all season with remarkably similar numbers to Hamilton’s including a 16-3 playoff record. They finished the regular season with 50 wins and 104 points. they’re deep in NHL-drafted players including Jake Neighbours who played nine games for St. Louis last fall.

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