A few hours before he was set to meet the media gathered for the 2011 Memorial Cup, Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors head coach Dave Cameron was out hitting the pavement.
The 52-year-old fitness fanatic was jogging on the street about a kilometer from the Hershey Centre wearing sunglasses and his dark blue Majors workout gear. And while the road he was running was lengthy, it wasn’t nearly as long as the hockey journey he’s been on this year.
His Majors were the top-ranked team in the Ontario Hockey League, finishing with a 53-13-0-2 record and an Eastern Conference title. They were the favourites in the OHL Final, though they finished as runner-up after losing to the Western Conference champion Owen Sound Attack in a thrilling Game 7 overtime on home ice at the Hershey Centre.
And while he might have lost out on an OHL title, he hasn’t yet lost his sense of humour.
“I’m still not allowed to play with anything sharp,” joked Cameron at the coaches’ press conference. “I can’t wait to get a win because those counseling sessions are real expensive.”
He said the sting from coming so close to the J. Ross Robertson Cup has worn off after having three days to put the loss in the rear-view mirror and start fresh for the tournament as the host team.
“We’re over it,” said Cameron, who is one of the frontrunners for the vacant Ottawa Senators head coach’s job in the NHL. “We’re very, very fortunate to have the chance to eliminate some of that hurt and that sick feeling when you lose like that (in Game 7) by getting into the Memorial Cup.”
First up for the Majors will be the Quebec Majors Junior Hockey League champion Saint John Sea Dogs in the tournament opener on Friday night (Sportsnet, 7 p.m.). Saint John was the No. 1 team in the Canadian Hockey League with a 58-7-1-2 record. If there is such a thing as a favourite in this year’s tournament, the Sea Dogs might just be it, even through every coach at the podium on Thursday afternoon wanted to stay clear of the spotlight.
“Like everything else,” said Cameron of playing favourites. “It’s whoever the media says it is.”
Kootenay head coach Kris Knoblauch, whose Ice had been underdogs throughout the Western Hockey League playoffs, still wanted to lay claim to the label despite knocking off the high-powered Saskatoon Blades, Medicine Hat Tigers and Portland Winterhawks to claim the WHL title.
“I’d like to say out of the four teams here it’s definitely not us,” said Knoblauch. “These teams are so close, they’ve earned the right to be here. It’s going to come down to who’s playing the best hockey.”
In a tournament such as this, the difference between making it to the Memorial Cup final and going home can be decided in a game. Cameron, has experienced that same kind of pressure this season having been head coach of Team Canada. That tournament in Buffalo, N.Y. proved to be his second great defeat this year after losing the gold medal to Russia when a late third-period collapse left Canada with silver. At the Memorial Cup, he’ll be reunited with two of his former world junior stars – forward Cody Eakin, who plays for the Ice, and defenceman Simon Despres, who is with the Sea Dogs.
“I have a pretty good handle on what they bring and they’re pretty good hockey players,” said Cameron. “You get to coach them in one of the biggest tournaments of their lives … any time you’re associated with kids on a team you always wish them the best and you know that they’re both dominant players on their teams and we’ll have to pay attention to them. But deep down, outside of when they’re playing your own team of course, you’re cheering for them.”
Eakin and Cameron renewed acquaintances when they ran into each other briefly as the Ice were coming into the rink.
“(Cameron) said ‘Congratulations and continue to work hard,’ “said Eakin. “It’ll be interesting to line up against him.”
Interesting, too, to line up against former world junior teammate Casey Cizikas who is Cameron’s captain in Mississauga with the Majors.
“I’d put him on my team,” said Eakin of the New York Islanders fourth-round draft pick. “He’s a complete player, he works hard and he’s not afraid of nothing – he’s a fearless player. He’s just one of those guys who is going to create havoc, he’s going to put the puck in the net and backcheck as hard as he can. The only time I’ve seen him (play) was in world junior and he brought it there and I know he’s going to bring it here too.”
There’s no question the rest of the Majors will be bringing their best too in order to find a little redemption after losing out in the OHL Final, not to mention the added motivation to help Cameron and Cizikas finally celebrate a championship. The only title the Majors currently hold, is that of “host team” and that doesn’t seem to sit all that well with Cameron.
"Sometimes when you sit here, the way things unfolded - you just seem like the odd duck,” said the coach. “These three guys won their championships on the road in overtime, and I lost it at home in overtime. I'm the odd duck here, but welcome."