Justin Shugg had to fight to get the words out of his mouth.
The Mississauga St. Michael's Majors veteran forward stood in front of reporters Sunday night, dejection and devastation written all over his bearded face. Shugg had just suffered his first loss in a MasterCard Memorial Cup final after winning two consecutive titles and it was clear he was having a difficult time being on the losing end.
“To be on the other side is probably the worst feeling I’ve ever felt,” Shugg said finally.
While Shugg was trying to find the words to explain how devastated he felt, the Saint John Sea Dogs were wildly celebrating their 3-1 victory over the Majors. It was the first time a team from the Maritimes won the 93-year-old Canadian major junior hockey championship. It was the second time this month the Majors watched an opponent claim a championship on their home ice. The Mississauga club and their Hershey Centre followers had already suffered through a Game 7 overtime loss to the Owen Sound Attack in the Ontario Hockey League Final.
“This feels worse because I’m going home tomorrow,” said Majors defenceman Marc Cantin who, like Shugg, was acquired in the off-season from the two-time Memorial Cup-champion Windsor Spitfires to give the Majors a boost in their Memorial Cup quest. “After the OHL Final at least we knew we had this (tournament) to prepare for. This is my last junior game and a lot of other guys in the (dressing) room can say the same. It’s just tough to see those guys go.”
It was just as tough on head coach and general manager Dave Cameron, who suffered his third championship loss in a span of five months. Cameron’s Canadian team allowed a third-period lead to slip away against Russia in the gold medal game at the world junior championship in January. The Majors lost four of their last five games in the Owen Sound series. And, despite outshooting the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champions 35-25 – including 26-14 over the final two periods - Sunday night, Cameron’s charges fell short.
“They say the losing toughens you,” Cameron said after the game.
“Well, right now, I feel like a 10-cent steak.”
Prior to the puck drop, the 52-year-old coach explained that the toughest thing about his losses this season weren’t tied to his own personal disappointments. Instead, he felt heartache for his players knowing what they had each sacrificed in order to make it to a final.
“You have an attachment with the players that you’ve had for three or four years,” said Cameron of his Majors. “That’s the thing, people ask you about losing and the hardest part about losing isn’t dealing with it as a coach, from a personal point of view. It about how heartbreaking it is for your kids. I know what they go through, I know how committed they are, I know how hard they work and what they’ve given up to be here. The hardest part about losing is that feeling you get for your team, for your players.
“When you get older and you get some life experiences at the end of the day you have to say, ‘It’s just a hockey game.’ Sure it sucks and it hurts, but it doesn’t linger. That feeling when you see your team that’s been committed to you and you see they get their hearts broken. It stings you.”
It turns out Cameron’s players feel the same way about their coach.
Captain Casey Cizikas, who was with Cameron for all three final losses – including the world junior in Buffalo, N.Y. - said he was just as disappointed for his coach.
“It’s definitely tough,” said the New York Islanders draft pick. “He’s been so close before, he’s been so close now. I’m just upset that we couldn’t get this one for him.
“He put his heart and soul into us this year. He’s with us every single day and the one who draws up the plans. He’s the one that’s the reason for our success.”
The loss might have also been Cameron’s last time behind the Majors bench as he has been widely rumoured to be a candidate for the vacant Ottawa Senators job. The Senators and Majors are both owned by Eugene Melnyk, who promoted Cameron once before in 2004 to become head coach of the American Hockey League’s Binghamton Senators. After three seasons with the Senators, Cameron returned to the Majors at Melnyk’s request to straighten out the struggling franchise. Under Cameron’s guidance, the Majors posted an OHL-high 53 wins and 108 points during the regular season. Mississauga sailed through the first three rounds of the playoffs winning 12 of 13 games to win the Eastern Conference crown before coming up short against Owen Sound.
"I love junior hockey," said Cameron when asked about potentially having coached his last junior game. "I love coaching in the OHL. I consider myself very lucky. I have an unbelievable owner who's allowed me to assemble an unbelievable staff. I have a ton of fun every day; there's not a bad day too often. You get to spend your time around a bunch of young gentlemen who are going to be very successful. It energizes you."
Still, there are those who will question whether the Senators – who missed the playoffs this season – would risk hiring a junior hockey coach who, despite his successes, has never won a championship.
“We can all sit back and we can all second guess,” said Sea Dogs GM Mike Kelly, who grew up with Cameron in Kinkora, P.E.I. “Unless you’ve been there, it’s a difficult thing and it even happens in the National Hockey League … If you’re him, somewhere deep down at the end of it he’s saying it’s going to make him better. He doesn’t have the ring, but he has the experience. I think he did a great job.”
And although Cameron can be a tough taskmaster at times, his players appreciate the fact he’s been able to bring out the best in them. Cantin, who has played under former NHL coaches George Burnett in Belleville and Bob Boughner in Windsor during his OHL career, believes the negativity surrounding Cameron’s record in the big games this year is unwarranted.
“He’s probably going to get some bad attention in the media, because of the world junior stuff,” said Cantin, the 21-year-old rock-solid defenceman who was named the tournament’s most sportsmanlike player. “But I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s an unbelievable coach. There’s a reason why he was the coach of Team Canada. There’s a reason why he’s going to coach in the NHL.”
If Cameron leaves, the Majors’ coaching reins will likely fall into the hands of associate coach and assistant GM James Boyd. Boyd, a former head coach with the Belleville Bulls, coached the Majors a number of times over the course of the year while Cameron was on scouting trips or away with Team Canada.
Regardless who is coaching the Majors next season, the cupboard in terms of talent might be bare with a large number of players graduating to the pro ranks.
“It sucks,” said Cantin, who’ll be looking for a job in the Boston Bruins organization this fall, of falling short Sunday. “It’s an awful feeling I can’t even explain. To come this far and have great chemistry and bond with guys like that, only to miss it by an inch – it’s tough.”