Not many in the hockey world expected the Hamilton Bulldogs to still be playing hockey in late May, but they are now on their way to Regina for the Memorial Cup.
The powerhouse Soo Greyhounds, the top-ranked team in the CHL for much of the season, had been the favourites to come out of the OHL after cruising to a 55-7-6 regular-season record. But the Bulldogs took care of business in the best-of-seven OHL final, wrapping up the championship in a memorable Game 6 on home ice on Sunday, bringing the City of Hamilton its first OHL title since the Bert Templeton-coached Hamilton Fincups in 1976.
North Bay’s Ben Garagan, the Bulldogs’ fourth-line centre who suited up for all 21 games in his team’s playoff run, said the Bulldogs were confident heading into the final against the Greyhounds, and that confidence remains as the team heads to Saskatchewan for the Memorial Cup tournament.
“Everyone is very excited for the trip to Regina,” Garagan told baytoday.ca before the Bulldogs travelled west. “We have that confidence that we’ve always had through the playoffs and I think if we play hard and do our jobs, I don’t see why we can’t be successful. We have a great group of guys heading there and it couldn’t be more exciting.”
As OHL champions, the Bulldogs will open the round robin of the four-team Canadian junior championship against the host Regina Pats on Friday. They will also face the WHL champion Swift Current Broncos on Monday and the QMJHL champion Acadie-Bathurst Titan on Tuesday.
Garagan and the rest of his teammates should still be riding an emotional high when the puck drops in Regina. The Game 6 championship win on Mother’s Day drew a season-high 8,663 fans to the First Ontario Centre. The Bulldogs trailed 3-2 entering the third period before scoring three times and hanging on for a nail-biting 5-4 victory.
It was the most significant hockey win in Hamilton since the AHL Bulldogs, backed by rookie Carey Price, won the 2007 Calder Cup at what was then Copps Coliseum. The three games in the OHL final in Hamilton attracted almost 25,000 fans.
“Winning on home ice was huge for us,” Garagan said. “It was repaying the fans for all they do for us. It was great to do it in front of them. The Soo was a very strong team and we knew that going in to the series, but we had a lot of confidence. We played some great hockey and so did they.”
It also made for some special Mother’s Day memories, but unfortunately, Garagan’s mother, Sue, was not able to attend. However, his father, Dan, and younger brother, Sam, a fellow former North Bay Trapper, were able to join Garagan in the post-game celebration as the team passed around the J. Ross Robertson Cup.
“It was so great that they were there to witness and experience that,” Garagan said.
By next season, Garagan could be sharing the Bulldogs dressing room with a few more North Bayites.
Defenceman Jake Gravelle of Callander, who played eight games with the Mississauga Steelheads before being acquired by Hamilton at the January trade deadline, suited up for one regular-season game with the Bulldogs.
Forward Dylan D’Agostino, 17, a 2016 draft pick, committed to the Bulldogs last summer and was called up from the NOJHL’s Powassan Voodoos to play two games with Hamilton during the regular season.
As well, Callander goaltender Zach Roy, 17, a fourth-round draft pick in 2017, made a commitment to the Bulldogs last fall and will be a candidate for some time in the crease in 2018-19.
Former Voodoos coach Beau Moyer has also joined the Bulldogs organization as a GTHL scout.
Garagan’s on-ice role with the Bulldogs is limited with such a strong group of veterans on the top three lines, but he plans to make the most of the experience at the Memorial Cup.
The last North Bay player to appear in the tournament, Ken Appleby, backstopped the Oshawa Generals to the title in 2015.
The last North Bay skater to compete in the Memorial Cup, Matt Marquardt, scored the GWG in the semifinal to help the host Moncton Wildcats reach the final in 2006.