From Bulldog pups to the Memorial Cup, News (Hamilton Jr Bulldogs)

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From Bulldog pups to the Memorial Cup
Submitted By Dianne Skirving on Thu 05 17, 18
The 2014 Hamilton Jr Bulldogs AAA team in their minor midget season included head coach Chris Naylor (standing second from left, holding binder), Brandon Saigeon (back centre with captain’s C), Owen Burnell (last player standing on the back right), Nick Caamano (front row, second from left) and Joseph Murdaca (goalie on the left). - Submitted Photo

Sitting in his log cabin on the north shore of the St. John River in rural New Brunswick, he flipped on the computer to listen online to a radio show from Hamilton. And as the distant-but-instantly-recognizable-despite-being-a-litte-deeper-now voices started talking, he got chills.

"I could feel every hair stand on my head," Chris Naylor says. "It was a tingle over my whole body."

It wasn't the voices per se. It was what they represented. Hearing Hamilton Bulldogs' forwards Nick Caamano, Brandon Saigeon and Owen Burnell talk about winning an Ontario Hockey League championship and now competing for the Memorial Cup — where one of the goalies they'll face is Acadie-Bathurst's Joseph Murdaca, another former teammate — the listener was blown away.

He'd coached them all. All at once. On one unbelievable minor midget (15-year-olds) Junior Bulldogs team that was unlike any he'd coached before or would coach again.

"That was a special group," he says. "You could coach AAA for 20 years and not get a group that special."

Hard to say if there's ever been a minor hockey team that's put four players from the same squad into the Memorial Cup in the same year, but it's unlikely. To have that many elite players in one lineup is unique. To have several of them land on the same junior team is a long-shot. To have multiple teams with those players qualify for the national tournament at the same time is buy-a-lottery-ticket rare.

The story really begins back in the spring of 2007.

Derrick Stevens had just been named coach of the Junior Bulldogs minor atom team. That age group is nine year olds. Back then, that was the entry point to the organization's AAA system.

He selected Caamano for the roster, but Saigeon — who 11 years later would finish second in OHL playoff scoring and win the season's final player-of-the-week honour — was cut. Wasn't a good enough skater, Stevens felt.

He laughs about that now. Then again, he quickly points out that once upon a time as a Junior B goalie in the 1970s, he was asked about a high-scoring kid he'd faced six or seven times. That day he told the reporter he didn't think Wayne Gretzky would have much of a career.

"Scouting hasn't been my best thing," he laughs.

Saigeon eventually made it the next year. Burnell, meanwhile, was an alternate player who filled in occasionally.

By the time they graduated to the peewee team coached by Anthony Susi, this group was already good enough to play in the Quebec peewee tournament, to win the Bauer World Hockey Invitational in Chicago — the biggest AAA event in the world — and to win the provincial title over a team coached by hockey Hall of Famer Paul Coffey.

And once they hit minor midget when Murdaca joined the team and Burnell was established as a regular, the squad was stacked. Fourteen of the 16 players were drafted into the OHL. Nine have played major junior hockey. Two just faced off in the Ontario Tier II junior championship with one now starring at the national RBC Championship. Two have been drafted by NHL teams.

"They've all found success," Naylor says.

Saigeon ended up playing for Hamilton when his Belleville Bulls moved here. Caamano was acquired in a trade back in November. Burnell played Junior B most of the past three years before making the roster this season. And Murdaca — who was drafted but cut by Saginaw, played for Mississauga before being traded to Erie and then released after the season — actually went to the Memorial Cup last year as a member of the Otters.

Stevens, who now lives in Port Dover, was at the OHL championship-clinching game on Sunday. Naylor was transfixed in front of his TV from his new home as Saigeon scored the goal that turned the momentum in Hamilton's favour and Caamano scored the winner. Both coaches talk about how proud they are to have had some part in this.

And yes, they'll both be watching every minute as the guys they call Cammy, Saig, Burny and Doc now compete for the big prize, something even the players are having a hard time believing has worked out as it has after all these years together.

"I don't think any of us could have expected us to be in this position today," Burnell says. "But it's cool how it worked out."

[email protected]

905-526-2440 | @radleyatthespec

Spectator columnist Scott Radley hosts The Scott Radley Show weeknights from 6-8 on 900CHML

[email protected]

905-526-2440 | @radleyatthespec

Spectator columnist Scott Radley hosts The Scott Radley Show weeknights from 6-8 on 900CHML

by Scott Radley

Scott Radley is a sports columnist with the Hamilton Spectator.

Email: [email protected] Twitter


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