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A parade was held in Saint John, New Brunswick on Sunday afternoon as part of the 2022 Memorial Cup festivities ahead of Monday’s opener between the Ontario Hockey League champions, the Hamilton Bulldogs, and the Saint John Sea Dogs, host city of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. All four teams, including the QMJHL champion Shawinigan Cataractes and the Western Hockey League winners Edmonton Oil Kings, were celebrated along the root of the parade.
“Okay, that was good. It was cool to see everyone and the city come together,” said Ryan Winterton, the Kraken’s 2021 third-round pick and one of the league’s leading scorers. OHL Hamilton in a high performance playoff. “It’s going to be an exciting 10 days here…hockey should be pretty good.”
The “10 days” of the Memorial Cup represent a historic tournament that rewards the champions of the three leagues that make up the elite of the Canadian Junior Hockey League, in addition to offering a chance to become national champions at the highest level. Night games (7 p.m. local and 3 p.m. Pacific) begin with a round robin where each team plays a match against other opponents.
The team with the most points in the standings gets a bye to the championship game scheduled for June 29. Hamilton stumbled in Monday’s opener, dropping Game 1 in Saint John, 5-3. The Bulldogs now have two days to make practice adjustments before facing Shawinigan and Edmonton back-to-back on Thursday and Friday, respectively.
Winterton scored a power-play goal eight minutes into Monday’s opener to tie the game at 1-1 with Saint John. But the home side, clearly inspired by the home crowd’s support, outscored the visitors Hamilton, 24-10, and regained a 3-1 lead midway through the second period.
Hamilton couldn’t recover from a three-goal second period at Saint John that extended the lead to 4-1 after 40 minutes. Winterton got an assist on a Hamilton power-play goal midway through the third period. Then Winterton scored his second goal of the night with four minutes left to create a one-goal gap. But the Bulldogs failed to tie with Saint John scoring a late empty goal to make it a 5-3 final.
The team with the fewest ranking points is eliminated after the round robin. If two teams have the fewest seedings, a tiebreaker match is scheduled for June 26. The two teams that finish second and third (the latter possibly decided by the aforementioned tiebreaker game) play June 27 for second place in the title game. .
For his part, Winterton has been thinking about the Memorial Cup since returning from a five-month layoff with a shoulder injury. He said so in an interview at the start of 2022 and admitted in a phone conversation this weekend that he plans to reach Saint John at the start of the season.
“This team is a different group than my previous year here, just much tighter and you knew from the start of training camp that everyone wants the same goal of winning the OHL Championship,” Winterton said. “We all had that mindset throughout the playoffs and the last series. [winning a Game 7 at home] was special.”
Winterton credits his teammates, coaches and front office for making him feel like a part of the team, even though the expected one-month timeline to join the roster has turned into almost five months.
“It was a huge thing for me, especially at the start of the season,” Winterton said. “I feel like I’m not helping the team too much. But Steve (Staios, general manager) and the coaches and players have done a really good job of making me feel included. I’m grateful for that.”
Winterton returned the creed by registering 20 goals and 26 assists in 37 regular season games and now 19 points (seven goals and 12 assists) in 18 playoff games. He missed Game 6 – a loss – but was otherwise a consistent contributor at both ends of the rink.
Team Canada officials have noticed this as well. Winterton was invited to the World Juniors selection camp ahead of the Aug. 9-20 tournament in Edmonton (postponed last winter due to COVID-19 protocol). But Winterton is only focused on the Memorial Cup at hand.
“Points and everything are fine,” Hamilton said when asked about his offensive improvement this season. “But, you know, it doesn’t matter if you don’t win or if you don’t go deep into the playoffs. It’s about winning the championship, that’s the climax.”
Following follow-up commentary on his winning battles with the puck in all areas and starting a number of marquee playoff games playing what coaches like to call “hard on the puck,” Winterton admitted he was glad people noticed those details.
“I think it comes down to just getting older in the OHL,” said Winterton, who won’t turn 19 until early September. “I think it also becomes a confidence. You know, that’s a big reason. But, even though I didn’t think about it at the time, but the pandemic could have helped me too. I was skating four or five times a week, just practicing non-stop…now, looking back, I think that helped a little.”
With the Memorial Cup and a possible spot on Canada’s World Juniors roster (he was there last winter), Winterton is exactly where he and his teammates imagined he would be in June.