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Dogged determination

groulx-cup_200.jpgHistory will remember the 2007 Calder Cup champion Hamilton Bulldogs as being representative of the blue-collar city which they call home. Guided by head coach Don Lever and assistant Ron Wilson – both champions in their own AHL playing days – and underdogs in all four rounds of the Calder Cup Playoffs, Hamilton played smart, workmanlike hockey and dispatched Rochester, Manitoba and Chicago before dethroning Hershey to capture Steeltown’s first professional hockey championship.

The Bears had rolled to back-to-back Eastern Conference banners, winning 12 of 14 postseason games this year and 28 of 35 over the last two springs and stringing together seven consecutive series triumphs. They finished with the best record in the league playing in arguably the AHL’s toughest division in 2006-07, and lost in regulation just 17 times in 94 games before the Finals.

But the Bulldogs proved to be no match for Hershey, splitting two games in Chocolatetown before winning three straight on home ice and celebrating their first title with a 2-1 victory on Thursday, with more than 14,000 rabid fans in attendance at Copps Coliseum.

Seventh-year AHL’er Ajay Baines, who scored the Cup-winning goal off a shorthanded rush with Maxim Lapierre midway through the third period of Game 5, was brought in last offseason to provide leadership to a young group of Montreal prospects. Ditto Eric Manlow, a 12th-year pro who had reached the conference finals three times previously but had never tasted a championship. Mathieu Biron, one of the anchors on the Bulldogs’ blue line, was acquired in a midseason trade from San Jose and grabbed a Calder Cup ring in the first playoff go-around of his eight-year career.

Stability was key for the ‘Dogs throughout the 2006-07 season. Corey Locke, a 2003 draft pick by the Canadiens who led the team in postseason scoring with 10 goals, 12 assists and 22 points, was one of four Bulldogs who played in all 102 games. Dan Jancevski played in all 80 regular-season games for the third time in his career, and rookies Kyle Chipchura and Ryan O’Byrne didn’t take a night off either. Duncan Milroy, Jonathan Ferland, Jean-Philippe Cote and Andrew Archer all joined Hamilton as rookies in 2003, finally hoisting the Cup four years later.

After recording a minus-15 rating last year, defenseman Andre Benoit was a plus-15 in the 2006-07 regular season and a league-best plus-13 in the playoffs. Danny Groulx didn’t score a single goal in the regular season, but netted six in the playoffs. Mikhail Grabovski and Matt D’Agostini both made their AHL debuts this year and were valuable contributors to the Bulldogs throughout.

But the biggest impression was made by the unassuming kid between the pipes. Carey Price, a 19-year-old British Columbian who had already had himself a pretty impressive season, made his professional debut late in the regular season and was thrust into the spotlight as Hamilton’s number one goaltender for the playoffs. Price shut out Rochester in Game 1 of the first round, and was on his way to AHL history.

The unavoidable comparisons to the great Patrick Roy – who jumped from junior hockey to the AHL at the end of the 1984-85 season and promptly led Montreal’s affiliate to a Calder Cup title – never seemed to faze Price as he methodically marched the Bulldogs through the postseason.

Rochester swept Hamilton out of the playoffs by Rochester in 2004 and 2005, but this time the Bulldogs prevailed. Manitoba won the North Division in the regular season, but Hamilton was too much in the second round. Chicago boasted one of the most potent offenses in recent AHL history, but Price and the ‘Dogs shut them down. And the Bears’ hopes for a championship repeat were snuffed out in five games.

Price joined Roy (1985) and an 18-year-old Gordie Bell (1943) as the only goaltenders ever to lead their teams to a Calder Cup championship as teenagers. He was an easy choice for the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as MVP of the 2007 Calder Cup Playoffs, going 15-6 with a 2.06 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage.

After the disappointment of watching the Calder Cup awarded on their ice to the opposition in 1997 and 2003, the Bulldogs and their fans finally have a champion of their own to growl about.