There’s no better way for a new team to get to know one another and build some chemistry than a strong training camp. Even better, a training camp that is on the road, far away from the distractions of home, where everyone lives and breathes together. One season removed from their historic Calder Cup conquest in 2007, the Hamilton Bulldogs, the then AHL farm team of the Montreal Canadiens, travelled to Edinburgh Scotland to kick off their 2009-2010 training camp. “We’re going away to get closer together”, said Bulldogs general manager, Julien Brisebois, as the team was preparing their trans-Atlantic voyage on September 22.
Joining the team were 20 players, most of whom were freshly cut from the Canadiens training camp, including goaltenders Cedrick Desjardins and Robert Mayer; defencemen Chad Anderson, André Benoit, Micheal Busto, Frederick St-Denis, and P.K. Subban; and forwards David Desharnais, Ryan White, J.T. Wyman, Ryan Russell, Mikael Johansson, Andrew Conboy, Brock Trotter, Dany Massé, Mike Glumac, Mathieu Darche, and Eric Neilson. Five players from their ECHL affiliate Cincinnati Cyclones received AHL tryouts and also made the trip, including Felix Petit, Sam Bloom, Kenton Dulle, Brett Robinson, and Brian O’Hanley.
Spearheading the fray was the rookie coaching staff of Guy Boucher and his assistants Martin Raymond and Dan Lacroix. Team captain Alex Henry also traveled with the club, albeit unable to play because of a broken hand he sustained in a preseason NHL fight that required surgery.
During an interview with Habs Eyes on the Prize, Desjardins remembered the trip fondly, calling it an incredible start to a springboard season for him.
“We were a new group of guys away from the pressure of Montreal,” recalls Desjardins. “When we were cut from the Canadiens’ camp, we found out we would be going overseas, and it was really appreciated by the players to go there and do a training camp away from family and friends. We formed bonds and it helped everyone get to know one another while we were training and learning new systems.”
“We didn’t have smartphones back then. We all had the old flip phones, so there was no internet connection, and we couldn’t get in touch with friends or family. Disconnecting like that really helped us live our week in Scotland, and build that synergy with everyone together”.
“I had Guy Boucher for two years in Rimouski, so I knew him quite well. In Scotland he really put together a program for us that made sure that we would have fun, but also make sure that the right environment was created to put us to work and put the new systems of play in place.”
The Bulldogs would not only train in Scotland and build team unity, but also take part in the Gardiner Cup as part of a national celebration that celebrated the roots of the sports in Scotland. It was a four-team tournament that also included rivals Toronto Marlies, along with the Edinburgh Capitals and Belfast Giants of the Elite Ice Hockey League, the top league in the United Kingdom.
“Both the Hamilton Bulldogs and the Toronto Marlies were approached by the Edinburgh Capitals to compete in an international hockey tournament as part of Scotland’s Ice Hockey Homecoming event”, said Bulldogs President and Governor Glenn Stanford at the time of the event. “Both organizations saw this as a wonderful opportunity for their players and staff to see a part of the world that might be new to them, while at the same time, prepare for the upcoming AHL season.” Stanford added, “We’re looking forward to opening our preseason in Edinburgh before returning home to finish training camp and the preseason in preparation for our 14th season in Hamilton”.
The Gardiner Cup was named after two-time Vezina trophy winner Charlie Gardiner, a Scot who won the Stanley Cup in 1934 with the Chicago Blackhawks. To this day he is the only goaltender to captain a team to the NHL Championship. In 1945, he became an inaugural inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and is generally considered one of the best goalies of the early days of the NHL.
The games would be played in the old Murrayfield Ice Rink, home of the Capitals. It is one of the oldest arenas in the United Kingdom as it was build in 1939, and has housed an ice hockey team almost consistently since 1952. “The arena was very old, and there wasn’t much room there. We were very far away from the luxury of the NHL,” said Desjardins with a chuckle. “but that was just another thing that helped the team to bond”.
The first game was an exhibition between the Bulldogs and the Marlies in a tightly fought contest with the Bulldogs coming out on top 1-0 on a late unassisted goal by Wyman. Wearing the ‘C’ for the Bulldogs was Glumac, with White and Shawn Belle as the assistants. The team would have only had one practice together prior to this game.
The Bulldogs took no prisoners in their game against the Giants in their semi-final heat. Although the game started off close, the Bulldogs opened the floodgates midway through the first period, and scoring a total of seven times on 52 shots. Subban demonstrated his powerful shot from the point on two occasions leading to deflection goals by Russell. White also scored twice, while Johansson, Trotter, and Anderson filled out the scoresheet.
During the other semi-final game, the Marlies also proved to be too strong for their opposition, beating the Capitals 6-1.
The two forever-rivals then faced off against one another once again, this time in the finals. This time the game wasn’t nearly as tight as the exhibition game. The Bulldogs began to display their potential as a squad, pulling ahead 1-0 after one period and 3-1 after two periods which would end up being the final score. Trotter scored twice on Marlies goaltender James Reimer while Benoit added the insurance goal. Reimer made 33 saves in the loss.
“The results may have been one-sided, but looking at our season record, we finished first overall and we had a lot of depth, and you could see that when we arrived in Scotland,” said Desjardins. Reinforcing that point is the fact that the team’s eventual 115 points that season is the most by any Montreal Canadiens farm team to this day. “The overall event was bigger than hockey and we really enjoyed the whole experience. The Capitals organized tailgate parties, and they had Scottish dancers perform outside in the parking lot.”
The AHL teams demonstrated their outright dominance against their Commonwealth cousins, but since the 2009 visit to Scotland, the level of play in the UK has certainly gone up at an accelerated rate.
“More and more you’re seeing players head over to the EIHL from the ECHL and AHL. It is a professional league after all, and the talent level represents that. Eric Neilson went back to Manchester to become a player-coach for a season (2016-17), based on his experience with the Bulldogs on this trip. We were asked when we came back whether we were tired, and yes we said we were physically tired, but in terms of group unity and team synergy we gained a lot from that. Not the kind of trip you want to make every year, but I do feel lucky to have gone there and taken part in the event”.