Playoffs were upon us, and we were getting ready to face the Rochester Americans in the first round of the 2007 Calder Cup playoffs. We had a solid finish to a mediocre season but were not favoured to have a deep playoff run. Our lineup was an excellent mix of veteran leadership and young prospects for the Montreal Canadians. Our owner Micheal Andlauer had brought in some outstanding character veterans at the start of the year, like Duncan Milroy, Ajay Bains, and Eric Manlow, to help lead up-and-coming prospects like Maxime Lapierre, Ryan O'Byrne, Mikhal Graboski, and Kyle Chipchura. Given it was my first year in professional hockey, I did not appreciate how special this team was at the time. It is one of the hardest things in professional sports to get the right mix of talent, character, and leadership on a team. In my time with the Bulldogs, the closest we came to the right combination again was in 2009. Unfortunately, despite having this mix of players, we could not win a championship as we lost in game 7 against Houston. A difference maker in 2007 was a young goaltender named Carey Price. Carey was drafted earlier that year by the Montreal Canadiens. I remember watching him win gold at the World Junior tournament only a few short months before his arrival in Hamilton. He had finished his season with the Tri-City Americans of the Western Junior Hockey League and was subsequently sent to us. Carey arrived at Copps Coliseum in a cowboy hat and cowboy boots a few weeks before our regular season ended. Don Lever started him in his first two professional games just before the regular season ended. Don Lever liked what he saw and made the controversial decision to start Carey Price over our veteran goalie Yann Denis in the first round of the playoffs.
As you can imagine, this wasn't very pleasant for Yann, but Yann conducted himself like a professional. In round 3 against Chicago, Yann had a chance to prove himself when Carey was pulled in game one, and Yann did just that when he came in and shut the door to win the pivotal game in double overtime. Carey had a very low-key demeanour, and seemingly nothing phased him. His cool-as-a-cucumber attitude was on display throughout the playoffs that year, but none more than in Game 1 of the finals against the Hershey Bears. A tornado had ripped through the area close to the arena knocking the power out in the rink. As a result, the game was delayed for almost an hour. While waiting in the dressing room, Carey lay on the floor for a nap. When the power came back, Carey walked out in front of a packed house in enemy territory and turned away 46 shots to shut out the Hershy bears 4-0 and win game 1.
We had finished the regular season relatively healthy with no serious injuries. In my first year, I was not overly concerned about what our man games lost were. I was too busy just trying to establish myself in my new role. As my time with the Bulldogs went on, I would delve deeper into this number, attempting to learn all the factors that influenced it in hopes of making it as low as possible. I will elaborate on this in a later blog.
With our team very healthy, there were no injured players to stay back with while the team travelled. This meant I was going to travel for the playoffs! I was excited to consistently get on the road, especially during the playoffs. However, fate would have it we would suffer one fluke injury in our last game of the season, preventing me from getting to Rochester for game one. Mikhail Grabovski (a.ka. "Grabo") was in the dressing room dancing in celebration after our last win, and he slipped backwards. Bracing himself for the fall, he placed his hand on the ground and somehow managed to put it in such a way that the blade of his skate cut it, causing a severe laceration. Rochester had a home-ice advantage in the first two games. We thought Grabo would be almost ready for game two. The primary concern with a cut to his hand was placing it in a bacterial-infested environment like a hockey glove.
The last thing we wanted was for the wound to become infected. So we had to make sure the wound was fully healed. In the meantime, we needed Grabo to stay active and be ready to play. The team left for Rochester a few days before game one to settle in, and I stayed behind with Grabo to train and get a few individual on-ice sessions in. We were close to our estimates, so Grabo and I got in my truck to head to Rochester the day before game two. Grabo was a wonderful guy to work with, but his English still needed to improve at the time. I remember it was a warm sunny early spring day when we drove to Rochester. Grabo was hot and did not want to wear a shirt in the car. I was very concerned about the optics at US customs, and I pleaded with Grabo to put a t-shirt on as we got closer. I had no interest in having my bodily cavities searched that day! We were one car away from the border agent when something I said must have convinced him to put it on.
Thankfully we got across, and no bodily cavities had to be searched. Carey Price had shut the door in game one with a 2-0 victory. This made it difficult for Don Lever to change the lineup for game two. Unfortunately, we lost game two, but this opened the door for Grabo to get back in the lineup for game three. Grabo made the most of this opportunity and got the game-winning goal in double overtime to give us a 2-1 series lead. We would beat Rochester in five games, and Grabo's game-winning goal in double overtime was a significant turning point. Keeping Grabo game ready while his hand healed was essential to seamlessly return to play.
In the playoffs, my role was whatever needed to be done. I would make ice packs, stretch, treat, and load equipment into trucks. On the road, I would buy oranges and bananas and prepare electrolyte mixes for longer overtime games. Again, I would do whatever needed to be done that we felt I could do to help give us even a little bit of an edge over our competition. By the second round, we had a black ace squad from our East Coast Hockey League affiliate with us. These players would only get in the lineup if we had significant injuries, but they needed to train and skate to ensure they were ready. I would run workouts for these players, but I always focused on helping the playing roster be prepared to compete.
We went on to face the Manitoba Moose, who were again favoured over us. However, we would beat Manitoba in six games before moving on to the Chicago Wolves in the Semi-Finals. We would beat Chicago in five games to earn the right to compete for the Calder Cup against the Hershey Bears affiliate of the Washington Capitals.
In the finals, we split the first two games held in Hershey, then won game three in Hamilton. We were to return to Hershey for game 4 and immediately return to Hamilton for game five the next night. Travel in the AHL is NOT the NHL. There are no charter flights with all the food you can eat and big reclining chairs to sleep in. It is bussing and commercial flights. Nothing glamorous about it. Hershey is about a six-hour drive from Hamilton. This meant we would have to drive back all night to be back in Hamilton for game 5. The good news was that Hershey had to do the same.
Thankfully we beat Hershey handly in regulation that night 6-2. We tried getting a sleeper bus and even chartering a flight to give us an edge, but there was nothing available on short notice. We opted to take 2 buses so players could have lots of room to spread out and sleep. We brought an equipment truck so players could leave immediately after the game. I rode with our equipment guys in the truck, doing my best to keep Danny, one of our assistant equipment managers who were driving, awake! We went right into Copps coliseum early the following day and immediately started to get things set up for game five later that night. Despite not sleeping for what felt like days, I did not lack any energy for the game that night. We were one win away from winning the Calder Cup. Game five was a defensive battle held in front of 14,205 people at Copps coliseum. The first period ended with no scoring. The second period was still tight, but both teams got a goal. The game was tied 1-1 going into the third period. We had no desire to go to game seven back in Hershey.
Ajay Baines was one of the most underrated leaders in the AHL at the time. Ajay was also a diabetic who played with an insulin pump concealed in his pants. However, he never missed a workout during the year and used his influence to ensure the team bought into the necessity of off-ice training. Ajay was not a prolific scorer and was not overly fast, but somehow he found another level that night and broke loose with Maxime Lapierre while short-handed on a 2-on-1. Maxime fed Ajay a perfect pass, and he buried it into the back of the net with 9:33 left in the third period. Carey shut the door the rest of the way, and the Hamilton Bulldogs were the 2007 Calder Cup champions. This was a feeling I will never forget. Celebrating on the ice with the team, lifting the Calder Cup, the celebration through the night and into the summer. This was my first year and my welcome to professional hockey. What a year it was and a kickstart to my career.