Calder Cup hangover in Hamilton?

by Derek Wills || AHL On The Beat Archive

hamteam_375.jpg Almost one quarter of the way into the 2007-08 season, the Hamilton Bulldogs, who on June 7 beat the Hershey Bears 2-1 in Game 5 of the 2007 Calder Cup Final to capture the franchise’s first American Hockey League championship, are off to a so-so start with a .500 record of 7-7-0-3.

Not bad.

But when you’re the defending champs, playing in the hockey hotbed of the Golden Horseshoe, so-so isn’t so good, which has many members of the media, including yours truly, wondering if the Hamilton Bulldogs are suffering from a Calder Cup hangover.

Here are the facts. After failing to qualify for postseason play for just the second time in franchise history in 2005-06, the ‘Dogs had 173 days to prepare for their next regular season game. Following the 2006-07 season, Hamilton’s Bulldogs not only had 52 fewer days to get ready for a new season, they also had to find time to celebrate winning the Calder Cup, to wind down and refocus mentally, and to rest and recover physically after the team played 102 regular-season and postseason games, which was 22 more than the club had played in the previous season.

Generally speaking, players, coaches, and even us broadcasters (who do nothing but scream and yell at the top of our lungs far from where the real work is being done down on the ice), hit a brick wall both physically and mentally when the season comes to an end. Without the adrenaline that comes with preparing for and then playing, coaching or calling a game is gone, and once the torrid pace of playing, practicing and traveling non-stop for six to eight months slows, the mind and the body seem to shut down.

In an average season, it usually takes players between two and four weeks to recover and refocus. But for most of the Hamilton Bulldogs that I’ve talked to, many of whom played over 100 games in what was far from an average season in 2006-07, they’re still paying the price mentally and or physically for winning the Calder Cup.

While not one member of the defending champion ‘Dogs squad has been willing to use an apparent Calder Cup hangover as an excuse for the team’s so-so start, coaches and players also wouldn’t dismiss the idea that a short off-season has had some impact on how the team has performed in defence of their championship so far this season.

There are two other significant factors that have no doubt made life a little more difficult for Don Lever’s pack of ‘Dogs this season. The first factor is player loss. With team success comes individual success. Seven members of last season’s Hamilton Bulldogs have played in the National Hockey League this season. Forwards Kyle Chipchura, Mikhail Grabovski and Andrei Kostitsyn, and goaltender Carey Price, who won the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the most valuable player in the Calder Cup Playoffs, are all currently playing for the Montreal Canadiens. Forward Zack Stortini and defenseman Mathieu Roy have both skated for the Edmonton Oilers this season, while defenseman Dan Jancevski has played for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The ‘Dogs also lost forward Michael Lambert, defensemen Andre Benoit and Danny Groulx and goaltender Philippe Sauve. And the team has been without Ajay Baines, who is not only the team’s unofficial captain but also their best defensive forward, and mammoth two-way defenseman Mathieu Biron. Baines and Biron, who were both injured at Montreal Canadiens training camp, are expected to return to the line-up in approximately one week and one month, respectively.

The second factor is the big bleu, blanc et rouge target that the defending champions have on their backs. For most of the 2006-07 season, the Hamilton Bulldogs snuck under the radar. After finishing the regular season third in the North Division standings, few thought that the ‘Dogs had a chance to advance past the first round of postseason play. The Hamilton Bulldogs were an increasingly larger underdog in each of the four series that they played.

Even after upsetting the Rochester Americans in the North Division semifinals, the Manitoba Moose in the North Division final and then the Chicago Wolves in the Western Conference final, nobody thought that the ‘Dogs could knock off the defending Calder Cup champion and reigning regular-season champion Hershey Bears in the finals.

By all accounts, the Hershey Bears were not all that worried about the Hamilton Bulldogs – not even after they fell behind three games to one in the best-of-seven series. But as defending champions, not only have the ‘Dogs not been able to fly under the radar this season, they have been and will continue to be targeted by each and every one of the teams that they play.

Having pleaded my case, back to the question that I asked in the title of this article. Are the ‘Dogs suffering from a Calder Cup hangover? In one word, the answer is yes… and this hangover isn’t one that can be cured with a couple of aspirins (like the one that the team had the morning after they sipped champagne from the Calder Cup).

That said, what impresses me the most is the fact that not one coach or player has used the Calder Cup hangover as an excuse for their so-so start. There is a reason why 16 seasons have passed since a team has won back-to-back AHL championships.

Now that I’ve answered the Calder Cup hangover question, my next question is; can the Hamilton Bulldogs, a club with a .500 record of 7-7-0-3 in their first 17 games this season, become the first team since the 1990 and 1991 Springfield Indians to repeat as Calder Cup champions? Most would say that the ‘Dogs don’t have a snowball’s chance in h-e-double-hockey-sticks to repeat in 2007-08.

Then again, that’s what most said after the Hamilton Bulldogs started the 2006-07 season with a .250 record of 2-6-0-0 in the month of October, right up until the horn sounded at the 60-minute mark of Game 5 of the Calder Cup Final in front of 14,205 fans at Copps Coliseum on June 7.

The “Price” was right for the ‘Dogs in ’07. With or without Carey, only time will tell if it will be again in ’08.

Derek Wills is the director of broadcasting and play-by-play voice of the Hamilton Bulldogs.