When you’re a franchise trying to establish major junior hockey in a long-time AHL city, injuries are the last thing you need.
Worst-case scenario became a reality for the Hamilton Bulldogs in an Oct. 4 game versus the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
Just two shifts into his first game as captain, Justin Lemcke was carried off the ice on a stretcher with a broken right fibula.
“Any time it’s your captain out there just five minutes into his captaincy, you almost think it’s a curse,” said Bulldogs forward Stephen Harper (no relation to the former Prime Minister) about the injury after the game.
“It’s unfortunate. It didn’t look good, he knew it was broken, we all did and you feel for a guy like that.”
The FirstOntario Centre crowd was left holding its collective breath one more time as Bulldogs forward Matt Luff was concussed after a blindside hit to the head from Greyhounds forward Keigan Goetz.
Being forced to push on without its captain and a key forward, Hamilton was in need of somebody to step up.
Harper did just that by burying the overtime winner that gave the team to a 3-2 win over the Soo. That goal was just a precursor of things to come, as the Burlington, Ont., native went on to record a point in each of the Bulldogs’ first 11 games and led the team in scoring through October with eight goals and nine assists.
“I want to perform my best obviously with being a local guy,” said Harper. “But at the same time, if we win the game, that’s the most important thing. It’s nice to contribute but at the end of the day the win is the most important thing.”
With the absence of Lemcke and a mostly inexperienced blue-line, head coach and GM George Burnett, who has coached at the AHL and NHL levels, knew the team needed a veteran player.
Little did he know at the time that 18-year-old defenceman Ben Gleason would become another saving grace for his squad.
Acquired from the London Knights on Oct. 7, he has filled in admirably in Lemcke’s absence.
Through his first 10 games with the Bulldogs, Gleason recorded four goals and five assists while eating up minutes on the blue-line.
“Ben’s a very skilled player, very heavy player and I think he’s getting an opportunity to play bigger minutes than he was accustomed to playing,” said Burnett. “I’m sure he’s learning how to deal with that, whether it’s fitness, nutrition, just choices especially when you’re tired.
“He’s had some 27-28 minute games.”
He may be playing a big role for the team right now, but Gleason admits his transition to the team wasn’t an easy one.
“It was a tough couple of days, I got traded right away,” said Gleason, who is the cousin of Washington Capitals defenceman Tim Gleason. “The guys here are tremendous and helped me through everything.
“First game that I was here it was tough, but we battled through and we work hard every day.”
Gleason only played two games for the Knights this season before he was dealt to Hamilton, so the trade was undoubtedly a shock to him.
But the Bulldogs welcomed him with open arms, especially a few of the team’s leaders.
“Chucky (Charlie Graham) and Harps (Stephen Harper), they’ve helped me through a lot. Niki Petti has helped too, even when he was injured at the start. These guys have been great even though we’ve had some tough games.”
Playing The Right Way
The leadership of Burnett coupled by the play of Harper and Gleason has led the Bulldogs to a 6-8-0 record thus far, but they’ll need to play a full 60 minutes each game if they want to improve on that record.
In Saturday night’s game against the Barrie Colts, Hamilton almost coughed up a 5-2 third period lead but were bailed out by the heroics of Charlie Graham in net, en route to a 6-5 win.
Coach Burnett wasn’t happy about the effort after the game and had a fair assessment of what is needed from his squad moving forward.
“I wasn’t very happy with things in the third period, the game’s 5-2 and I think we struggled to buy into putting the puck into the right place,” said Burnett. “We almost had to pay the price for it, almost cost us the game.
“If we’re worried about points and individual accomplishments, there’s nobody in our group that’s probably going to make it in the National Hockey League because of the number of points they’re scoring.
“You have to learn how to play the game the right way first.”