In just a few weeks from now, on October 8, the lights in “The Dog Pound” at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton will dim. The hockey players on the roster of the Bulldogs will silently gather in a darkened tunnel underneath the stands. They will have butterflies in the pits of their stomachs. Some will rock back and forth on their skates. Some will stare at a fixed spot on the floor. They will shut out any distractions which might possibly take away their thoughts which will be focused on the task ahead that is waiting for them. Each has his own role to play. And then, finally, the waiting will be over. They will skate out on to the ice surface one at a time for player introductions among fanfare and applause. The national anthems will be performed, and then the puck will be dropped. A new season of Hamilton Bulldogs hockey will be underway.
Running the show this year behind the bench is new head coach Clement Jodoin. With the promotion of last season’s Bulldogs coaching staff, Randy Cunneyworth and Randy Ladouceur to Montreal, Jodoin comes into Hamilton as the Bulldogs’ 10th Head Coach in the team’s history. He is a career coach with 30 years experience in the game of hockey, and as the old saying goes, he has big shoes to fill. With the success that the Hamilton Bulldogs have experienced in recent years under the direction of former coaches (Randy Cunneyworth and Guy Boucher both took their teams to the AHL Semi-Finals while Don Lever coached the Bulldogs to win the team’s first Calder Cup) the fans in Hamilton have high expectations of the bench boss.
To help with these expectations, former Assistant Coach Ron Wilson (who worked with Don Lever to win the 2007 Calder Cup Championship) has returned and will serve as the assistant to Clement Jodoin.
There has also been quite a bit of roster turnover.
Most significant is the departure of goaltenders Curtis Sanford and Drew MacIntyre. Both of these goalies have played a major role in the recent success of the Bulldogs but decided that it was better to move on and achieve their dreams of playing in the NHL. When this happened, there was a brief moment of panic as Robert Mayer suddenly became the only Bulldogs goalie who was under contract. Mayer struggled last season, posting a horrible 3.06 GAA and a .890 save percentage in 21 games played. He will be competing for the backup role in net along with Peter Delmas, who signed a 3-year, 2-way deal earlier this summer. Delmas played in two games with the Bulldogs in 2010-2011, posting a 1-0-1 record with a 1.92 GAA and a .933 save percentage. He spent most of last season with the Hamilton Bulldogs and Montreal Canadiens ECHL affiliate in Wheeling, West Virginia. In 23 games with the Nailers, he recorded 15 wins, 6 losses and 2 overtime losses. In the ECHL’s 2011 Kelly Cup Playoffs, Delmas posted an 8-5-1 record playing in 14 of Wheeling’s 17 post-season games before the Wheelers were eliminated in six games by the Kalamazoo Wings in the Eastern Conference Finals. Delmas finished the playoffs ranked second in the league in playoff games (14) and saves (391), and third in wins (8).
Most likely to claim the starting role between the pipes is Nathan Lawson. From 2008-2011, Lawson played in a total of 83 games with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (affiliate of the New York Islanders), recording a 41-30-9 record with a 2.46 GAA and a .922 save percentage. After finishing the 2008-2009 season ranked second in the league in save percentage (.927) and third in goals against average (2.16), Lawson was named to the AHL’s All-Rookie Team. He also finished with the second-highest save percentage in the AHL during the 2009-2010 season.
Additional players who will be pulling a Bulldogs jersey over their heads this season include newcomers Brian Willsie, Joonas Nattinen, Michael Blunden, Alain Berger, Raphael Diaz, and Zack FitzGerald to name a few.
Returning from last year are Aaron Palushaj, Andreas Engqvist, Alexander Avtsin, Hunter Bishop, Andrew Conboy, Olivier Fortier, Ian Schultz, Dany Masse, Gabriel Dumont, Frederic St. Denis, Alex Henry, Brendon Nash, and Joe Stejskal.
A special moment to this upcoming season is the announcement that the Hamilton Bulldogs will be playing an outdoor hockey game on January 21st at Ivor Wynne Stadium (home of the CFL Hamilton Tiger Cats) vs. their arch-rivals, the Toronto Marlies (affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs). While certainly more commonplace than they used to be, an outdoor game still provides an opportunity for the Bulldogs to get the sort of widespread attention the franchise always wants but rarely receives. The fact that the opponent is the Marlies will help. Games against Toronto are always the Bulldogs biggest seller. This should be no different. Add to that the fact that this is a regular season game rather than an exhibition and it’s on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of hockey season, the ingredients might be there to fill the house or at least come close.
Whatever happens, it’s going to be an exciting season for Hamilton Bulldogs hockey.