The Hamilton Bulldogs had anything but a stellar season. Losing their second-straight contest to the surging Rochester Americans on Sunday, they finished the year with a lowly 29-41-1-5 record — the worst in the AHL.
The loss of Blake Geoffrion, who found himself on the receiving end of a cataclysmic hip check in Montreal on Nov. 9, also cast a pall on the team's 2012-2013 campaign. After the collision, the Bulldogs' centre underwent surgery to repair a depressed skull fracture. His future in hockey remains a question mark — in March, the 25-year-old told the Canadiens he's mulling retirement.
But despite Geoffrion's injury and the Dogs' sagging fortunes on the ice, the team gave Hamiltonians at least a handful of reasons to cheer. Here's a list of bright spots in the Bulldogs' otherwise bad season:
Staying in Hamilton
Bulldogs fans let out a collective sigh of relief in March when owner Michael Andlauer announced the team will continue to lease Copps Coliseum, keeping it in Hamilton for at least the next three years. They'll also retain their affiliation with the Montreal Canadiens.
"These agreements ensure that in 2015-2016, the Bulldogs will celebrate their twentieth season in the great city of Hamilton," said Andlauer.
"And to us Hamiltonians, it's been disappointing not to have an NHL club," he added. "But we should take some solace and pride in the fact that 170 Hamilton Bulldogs have played in the building and graduated to the NHL."
Like any minor league squad, the Bulldogs have a high turnover rate, with players getting called up, traded or let go seemingly all the time.
An upside to this is the steady stream of promising talent that comes through the doors of Copps Coliseum. Take Charles Hudon, the Alma, Quebec native, for example. Since his debut in early April, the 18-year-old netted a goal, chalked up three assists and has been among the team leaders in terms of shots on goals.
Not bad for the new guy.
Fans in the stands
The Bulldogs scored their best year in the last five in terms of attendance. The team averaged 5,342 fans per home game, up about 10 per cent over the previours year. And they sold out their home opener — the first time they did so since 2007, when they were defending Calder Cup champs — and tallied two more sellout crowds during the year.
The recent NHL lockout no doubt helped to bolster Bulldogs' ticket sales, but other forces were also at play, according to the team's president Stephen Ostaszewicz.
He attributed the rise in attendance figures to several factors, including the introduction of tiered ticket pricing and a greater emphasis on community outreach.
"We're local guys," he said of himself and many of his colleagues in management. "We're very passionate about making this team successful. It's a chance for us to leave a legacy in a market that yearns for hockey."
Signing local talent
Picking up players with local roots also helped to endear the Bulldogs with their fans in the past year. In the summer, the team picked up defenseman St. Jean de Brebeuf graduate Kyle Hagel, who was a free agent at the time. And in January, the team added journeyman forward Joey Tenute, a graduate of St. Thomas More.
"I'd been away for a long time," said Hagel. "To be back playing in front of your friends and family every night was really special."
The 28-year-old, who has started literacy programs at two Hamilton elementary schools, said he's grateful for hometown fans, who were vocal in their support despite the team's bottom-basement standing.
"On Sunday, it was our final game of the season and we're in 30th place and it's a 3 p.m. start. 6,500 fans were on their feet cheering for us," he said, a hint of disbelief in his voice.
"They were doing the wave."