In a cramped, nondescript locker room turned press conference area at the Hershey Centre, head coach Dave Cameron sat in front of a microphone alone - and disappointed.
“There will be no players available,” he told a handful of reporters.
The question-and-answer session was solemn and brief. It was April, 25, 2004 and Cameron’s Toronto St. Michael’s Majors had just been knocked out of the Eastern Conference final in six games by the then-Mississauga IceDogs.
Seven years, one day and a franchise move later, Cameron found himself back in that exact same room sitting in front of a microphone.
This time however was much different.
On Tuesday night, the coach was joking with reporters, showing glimpses of a smile and seated alongside his goaltender, JP Anderson.
Cameron’s Majors had just defeated the Niagara IceDogs 4-1 to win their best-of-seven series by the same margin to give Cameron the Eastern Conference title that had eluded him on five previous occasions.
“This is just as big for (Cameron) as it is for us,” said Majors captain Casey Cizikas. “It’s a monkey off the back for him. He’s coached us the way we needed to be coached this year… if it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be here right now.”
Where the Majors are, at the moment, is in the OHL championship where they will meet the winner of the Western Conference final between the Windsor Spitfires and Owen Sound Attack. The Majors have already claimed a spot in the MasterCard Memorial Cup as the host team this season, but they are more interested in entering the tournament as the OHL champion rather than just the welcoming committee.
“This is just a stepping stone for us,” said Cizikas. “I think we’ll just try to enjoy the next night, but once tomorrow comes it’s all business. We’re ready for the next series.”
Cameron took over the Majors franchise in 2000 and coached the team – then based in Toronto out of St. Michael’s College School Arena – to four consecutive Eastern Conference finals and four consecutive losses.
After the 2003-04 season, Cameron left to coach the AHL’s Binghamton Senators – the farm team of Majors owner Eugene Melnyk’s NHL franchise in Ottawa – where he was stationed for three seasons. He came back in 2007 and took the team back to the conference final last season where they were beaten by the Barrie Colts in five games.
“They were six different teams,” said Cameron. “I would say Dave Cameron the coach lost a couple of them. I would say Dave Cameron the GM lost at least one of them, and Dave Cameron, the coach-GM, won one.”
If the 52-year-old has any regrets, it’s the loss in the 2001-02 season when the Majors were the top team in the conference (40-19-8-1) and were swept in the final by Barrie.
“In hindsight I should have made a trade,” said Cameron. “I had the assets to make a trade and I didn’t. … but being a rookie GM, I was probably a little bit gun shy and still trying to figure things out.”
Cameron acknowledged Tuesday night that this year’s team is among the best he’s had to coach during his OHL tenure. The core of this year’s team came just as Cameron was returning to junior from the AHL.
After two years of moderate playoff success under head coach and GM Bud Stefanski, the Majors missed the playoffs for the first time in six seasons, in 2006-07, giving them the third overall pick in the summer’s OHL draft.
That same summer, Stefanski was fired and Cameron returned at Melnyk’s request. His first job was to select future captain Cizikas with the Majors’ first-round pick. But having returned to the Majors only days before the draft, Cameron admits he had never even seen Cizikas play. He credits his scouting staff – particularly director of player personnel Jim Cassidy and head scout Lui Vigilanti – whom he had originally hired and had remained with the team for making the decisions easier for him.
“In this business, you’re only as good as your players. Let’s be honest, it’s not rocket science,” said Cameron after the game. “I’ve been very fortunate to have (Cassidy) and (Vigilanti) and a good assembly of scouts that have been together almost from Day One.
“There was no nervousness, whatsoever … The fact that they had worked for me, we knew what kind of player we wanted that hadn’t changed – that still hasn’t changed.”
Cizikas said he met with Cassidy before the draft and felt good about Cameron taking over the team despite the fact he was going solely on reputation alone.
“It was definitely something me and my family thought about,” said Cizikas, a Mississauga native. “It was the right thing for me to do and now I wouldn’t have changed it for anything.”
The Cizikas pick was followed in the second round by defenceman Brett Flemming and Corey Bureau. They picked up 27-goal scorer Rob Flick in the fifth round and added Jordan Mayer – a holdout from the Soo Greyhounds – later in the summer via trade.
“A lot of us have been together for three or four years now,” said Cizikas. “It’s built trust with one another even on the ice. I think (the fact) that we have grown up together is definitely one of the main reasons why we are where we are today.”
The following year they would add another group of players to their core – forwards Devante Smith-Pelly, Riley Brace, Joseph Cramarossa, Derek Schoenmakers and star goaltender Anderson – through the draft. Last year at the OHL trade deadline, when he could have added a few extra pieces to his team, Cameron declined because he was happy with the makeup of his team, saying they were “a treat to coach”.
“It definitely builds chemistry because you know what each other will do,” said veteran defenceman Flemming. “A guy like Casey Cizikas, I’ve played with for four years. It’s nice to have him because we’ve become good friends. Having guys on the team for that long, you really get close to them.”
Flying under the radar for most of his junior career, Flemming led the OHL this season with a gaudy plus-60 and added some offence to his strong defensive game with four goals and 43 assists in 68 regular-season games. He, like many of the other core Majors, credits Cameron for playing a dominant role in the success of the club and his players.
“I can definitely say before I came to this league, I didn’t even know how to play hockey,” said the 20-year-old. “(Cameron) taught me and showed me the ropes. I learned that less is more and without him I don’t think I would be the player I am today.”
And even though he’s brought in new players this year via trades like forwards Justin Shugg and Chris DeSousa and defencemen Marc Cantin and Michael D’Orazio, Cameron’s thoughts after the game were with the players he had mentored from the beginning – the ones that had finally helped him reach his first OHL final.
“At the end of the day, the core guys of this hockey club are Mississauga St. Mike’s Majors – Cizikas, Flemming, JP (Anderson), Mayer – they were with this organization when we were finding our way, and that’s why this win was so emotional. So important.”