By Gare Joyce in Owen Sound, Ont.
By Gare Joyce in Owen Sound, Ont.
Owen Sound is the OHL's smallest market, but with astute management and player development — and diehard community support — its Attack have become a go-to destination for top-end talent.

You can say it about a lot of arenas in major-junior hockey: It’s a hard place to play as a visitor and an easy one for the home team. But nowhere is that more true than the home arena for the Owen Sound Attack, the Harry Lumley Bayshore Community Centre, or as the locals refer to it, the Lum.

On the first half of the proposition, it’s easy to see why visiting teams might get rattled here. Just getting to Owen Sound leaves opponents with the shpilkes — there’s no easy route into town and for months on end you’re looking at two winding lanes of black ice. When you do get here, the arena might be small but in no way should it be mistaken for intimate. Says Owen Sound defenceman Markus Phillips: “The seats are steep and the fans are so close and the boxes are right over the bench. You can hear everything they say. They’re practically breathing on you.”

On the second half of the proposition, well, for the home team there’s comfort in familiarity. Says former Attack forward Andrew Shorkey: “It’s a strange thing, but you look in the stands and you recognize everybody, everybody right down the line. After some time there you actually get to know where everybody sits. Owen Sound is a small place in a lot of ways but it’s at times like that you really come to realize just how small it is.”

Ultimately, though, what matters most to players is knowing not those in the stands but those in your own room. You might presume that moving to a small town and spending the vast majority of your time around a group of fellow transplants might induce a little claustrophobia. Left winger Jonah Gadjovich says the experience actually benefits the team. “I’m in my fourth year here and it works out pretty much the same each season,” says Gadjovich, a Whitby native. “We spend so much time together and know each other so well that no one is afraid to stand up in the room and say that we have to be better out there. There are no hard feelings — nobody is going to take it wrong.”

That’s the story in Owen Sound: The players don’t have to come together; the town’s so small that they bump into each other every time they turn around.

On game nights, the Lum embodies Owen Sound's small-town sense of community. "You look in the stands and you recognize everybody," says Shorkey.

The Attack had the second-best record in the OHL last season, just one point behind the Erie Otters, who knocked Owen Sound out of the playoffs in the Western Conference final. Given the struggles of the London Knights this season, the Attack will become the only OHL team to post 30-win seasons each of the past eight years. The feat’s even more impressive given Owen Sound has played in arguably the CHL’s toughest conference over that stretch. The team’s OHL title in 2011, the first in franchise history, was the highlight to be sure, storybook stuff. Yet unlike other franchises that have gone on similar runs, there was no famine following the feast.

The team’s consistency across this decade refutes the conventional wisdom about junior-hockey franchises — that the building of teams moves in cycles; that you put in seasons of struggling with young players to target a season when you go for it. The default mode for CHL GMs: Every two or three years, load up on 19-year-olds acquired for draft picks and take a run at a championship, immediate returns at the cost of a bleak season down the line. In Owen Sound, no season has been written off as a rebuilding year with a bunch of 16- and 17-year-olds, just as no season has seen a complete mortgaging of futures to take a big swing. Somehow, management has found a way to strike a balance.

Owen Sound has had success even though the franchise runs counter to the image of the CHL as a slightly stripped-down version of the NHL. We tend to think of the teams in larger major-junior markets (London, Kitchener, Windsor, Quebec or Halifax) or those in cities with NHL teams (Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver or Ottawa) as pro outfits in all but name. And when we think along those lines, we buy into the idea that scale equates to the quality of the game and the quality of player development.

The Attack by contrast feel like a community team writ large. Owen Sound (pop. 21,341) is the smallest market in the OHL by a considerable margin. More than a few Tier II and Jr. A teams play in buildings as big or bigger than the Lum. You’d be tempted to presume that the scale of the operation would put the Attack at a competitive disadvantage. Historically, there was some truth in that.

If you go back to the ’90s, a lot of top prospects made it clear they had no interest in going to Owen Sound and wouldn’t report, forcing a trade. Many cited the fact that educational options beyond high school were negligible — seemingly true on its face, but when it came to the elite prospects, those who were looking at slots in the first round of the NHL draft, a chance to pick up a college course was never really the deal-breaker they portrayed it to be. For others, though, those who were looking to play in the league at 19 or 20, it was an issue. “University courses online have really changed that, though,” says the Attack’s academic consultant, Sarah Rowe, who oversees the daily study hall at the arena. “It gives players a chance to pick up courses and credits during the season on a flexible schedule, which is what you really need when you’re playing in the OHL.”

Unlike in most major-junior markets, Attack players all live within spitting distance of each other and all of the team's high-school age players all attend the same school.

Really, the Attack have managed to turn around the education rap completely. In contrast to many CHL teams in large markets, all the Attack’s high-school age players attend the same school: Owen Sound District Secondary, where Rowe taught until her retirement a few years ago. Says Shorkey, who won the OHL’s high-school academic award before going to McGill University: “It’s a different environment than others in the OHL. I took a heavy course load because I wanted to go into medicine and made some sacrifices, socially anyway, not being able to hang out with the guys all the time. But with some other organizations I really doubt they could have or would have been able to accommodate me.”

Owen Sound isn’t just striking a blow for the little guy. The Attack are also a piece of a bigger good news story for major-junior hockey. It would be overselling the phenomenon to bill this as the Year of the Small Market in the CHL. Owen Sound started the season ranked No. 2 overall, but has slid in the standings somewhat since. The top-ranked team is the Sarnia Sting, an operation similar to the Attack’s in scale. Swift Current, the WHL’s smallest market, has been a fixture in the CHL’s top-10 rankings. Yeah, Portland and Quebec are in the elite, but still, it’s curious that the league’s other traditional big fish, those with the market advantages and resources, have to look up to see the supposed minnows.

“It’s such a small community. Everyone is billeting within 10 minutes of each other — it’s significantly different than what you see with almost any other major-junior team.”

Back 20 years ago it wasn’t just the lack of educational opportunities that held those supposed minnows back. Just as Owen Sound faced challenges recruiting the elite talents on the ice, they had a hard time attracting elite coaches — usually, those teams outside the major markets had to find someone looking for his first head coaching job. Established veterans wouldn’t consider a team so far away from the bright lights and opportunities. Yet Owen Sound turned that thinking on its head. It started when Mike Futa was GM and brought in Mike Stothers, who had been an assistant with the Philadelphia Flyers. When Dale DeGray took over in 2007, he brought in Mark Reeds, a coach with 15 years of pro experience behind the bench. The trend continued this past summer when Todd Gill was hired to fill the hole that opened up when the Vegas Golden Knights hired Ryan McGill as an assistant to Gerard Gallant. Gill put in three seasons behind the bench in Kingston, helping to turn around a staggering franchise, and then another three in the AHL, first in Adirondack, then in Stockton. With his resume and a history that includes more than 1,000 NHL games, Gill could have looked for another job in the pros, but instead decided he preferred the OHL for both career and lifestyle reasons.

“I got to know Dale [DeGray] when I played with him with the Leafs — though it had been a few years since we talked the last time,” Gill says of the Attack’s GM. “When I was finished my [playing] career, I went back to my hometown, Brockville, and I was happy coaching the Jr. A team. And I liked coaching [the Frontenacs] in Kingston close to home as well. I got to know what kind of organization Dale had put together. Owen Sound is farther away from my hometown, yeah, but as a community it really reminds me a lot of Brockville. I like the feel of things here. I like the idea of staying in one place where I’m happy. I’m not interested in managing, really. I like coaching and I like teaching these kids. I’m still learning about these players and this organization but I know we have a chance to be a really good team here. We have a lot going for us.”

DeGray's draft record as Attack GM rivals any in the OHL. Suzuki was taken with the 14th pick in the 2015 OHL draft and chosen 13th overall by the Golden Knights in 2017.

With six players selected in last year’s NHL Draft, the team Gill inherited from McGill does have a pretty constellation of talent — the biggest loss from one season to the next was Michael McNiven, the CHL’s 2017 Goaltender of the Year. How the Attack rolls this year might ride on the shoulder pads of Zach Bowman, a 20-year-old goalie now with his fourth OHL franchise. What Gill didn’t have to worry about, though, was team building — cohesion is baked into the cake in Owen Sound. “It really is an advantage for the franchise that you can count on as a coach,” says Greg Ireland, who helmed the Attack for four seasons before McGill. “It’s such a small community. Everyone is billeting within 10 minutes of each other and a lot of guys are living with billets whose neighbours are billets, too — it’s significantly different than what you see with almost any other major-junior team. Other cities you might have a kid who doesn’t go to school with any of his teammates. In a big city like Mississauga, let’s say, a kid’s closest teammate might be 20 minutes away. And really, people in Owen Sound have each other’s backs and watch out for the boys. They realize that if they cross any lines outside of the arena someone will see it.”

If that sounds like an exaggeration, consider this winning anecdote: A few weeks back, Rowe was at home when a neighbour called and asked if she was planning on making omelets. Rowe was puzzled and then the neighbor explained that she had spotted Rowe’s billeted player with teammates buying a few dozen eggs — thus was a Halloween incident headed off before a shell was cracked.

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The Attack are a junior hockey team but also a source of social capital. “It’s an extension of family,” Owen Sound mayor Ian Boddy says. “Everyone in the community knows the players — it’s not just that they’re popular as hockey stars. They’re involved in so many things here, fund-raisers, speaking at grade schools. The team is a rooting interest in town there’s no doubt — it’s somewhere to go to engage your neighbours on a Saturday night in the winter. We’ve had season-tickets for eight years now, same seats, and all the people in our section have got to know each other over the years. It’s our night out, a quality-of-life benefit. When it came time to invest in the arena for upgrades and improvements, it really didn’t meet opposition because it’s not just for the players. It’s for all of us who look forward to the games — kids through to the seniors. You can’t overestimate just how much the team means to Owen Sound.”

Of course, community spirit wouldn’t mean nearly as much if the Attack weren’t so consistently competitive, and that traces back to standard-issue aspects of management. “You can do a lot of things right but it won’t help if you don’t draft well,” says DeGray, who left the Boston Bruins scouting staff 10 years ago to become Owen Sound’s GM. Under DeGray, the Attack’s draft record is as good as any in the OHL, which is all the more impressive when you take into account the fact that, given Owen Sound’s winning records, he hasn’t been drafting from positions of advantage. Case in point: Centre Nick Suzuki, the team’s leading scorer, was taken with the 14th pick in the 2015 OHL draft and two years later the Vegas Golden Knights selected him 13th in the NHL Draft, the third OHL player selected in the first round. “I think this is a great place to grow as a player and work on your game,” Suzuki says. “There aren’t distractions and there’s a lot of support from the organization and from the players. I didn’t know anything about Owen Sound — I grew up in London watching the Knights with huge crowds and a lot of the big names. This franchise isn’t like that one if you look at the city, the arena and some other things, but I’ve just had great experiences here.”

Weekend home games are a big-ticket event in Owen Sound. That feeling of community is part of what attracted Todd Gill to the head coach's job.

Now, it’s hard to imagine the culture shock of moving from Owen Sound to Las Vegas, but at least Suzuki’s game is going to be there. He has been chasing the league lead in scoring all season and is in the mix for selection to Canada’s under-20 squad for the world juniors. Says one OHL executive: “What Dale has done is show that their organization can develop talent. It doesn’t matter what the size of the town is or if it’s hard to get to or anything like that. The important things are winning and development. They’ve been winning in Owen Sound for a long time and every player like Suzuki who improves there makes it easier to get players willing and eager to play there.”

Six Owen Sound players were selected in the NHL Draft last June and none of them had climbed the board as quickly as Gadjovich. At the start of last season, NHL Central Scouting had him ranked on its C list, the range where players are projected to go no higher than the fourth round and many go unselected. The seeding seemed reasonable — a second-round pick in the 2014 OHL draft, Gadjovich was coming off a campaign in which he scored 14 goals and 10 assists in 66 games. But he absolutely blew up in his draft year: 46 goals in 60 games and a plus-35. By the mid-term he was ranked 60th among North American skaters and by season’s end 39th. The Vancouver Canucks wound up selecting him with the 55th pick. “[Gadjovich] is a really smart and sound kid,” says one NHL scout. “It took him some time to get his chance to show what he could do but by the time he got out there he was completely ready for it.”

Maybe the most compelling case, though, would be defenceman Sean Durzi. DeGray selected Durzi out of the Mississauga Rebels with a 12th-round pick, No. 228 overall, in 2014. “I wasn’t sure that I was going to be picked,” the 19-year-old says. “I tried to keep an open mind about it. Really, I was only five-feet-eight — or not even — in my [OHL draft] year. I was a late bloomer, so I thought I might be going the NCAA route — playing Jr. A. It’s supposed to be better for late bloomers.”

When Durzi went to the Attack’s training camp at 16, a late-birthday, he made an impression — not enough to crack the lineup but enough for DeGray to take him aside. “He told me that I showed more than they expected out of a late draft pick,” Durzi says. “He told me to just go back and work at my game.”

“It’s an extension of family. You can’t overestimate just how much the team means to Owen Sound.”

Durzi spent his midget season back in Mississauga but made it onto the Attack at 17 after a bit of a growth spurt. “I remember my first game, I get out there and it’s me and another 17-year-old defenceman and the Knights sent out Mitch Marner, Christian Dvorak and Matthew Tkachuk. It was pretty scary.”

While it might sound like Durzi was thrown to the wolves, it really wasn’t much more than the usual growing pains. It wasn’t as if Durzi was thrust into a first pairing on a rebuilding team, something that might have been pretty discouraging. Instead, he was worked into the lineup and didn’t make a big impression in his NHL Draft year, going unselected last June. He won’t be passed over in his second year of eligibility. Through 25 games this season, Durzi has racked up 13 goals and 26 assists, leading all OHL defencemen in scoring. Impressive enough, but even more so given that he is trying to emphasize his play without the puck. “Todd has told me that if I’m going to have success at the next level it’s riding on play in our own zone and keeping the puck out of the net,” he says. “It’s great to have someone like him to talk to, who knows what it takes to make it in the NHL.”

The Lum's confines aren't exactly cozy — especially for opposing teams. "You can hear everything the fans say," admits Phillips. "They’re practically breathing on you."

A half hour before puck drop on a mid-November Saturday night, the Lum is bustling and those in standing room have staked their places along the rail. It’s not a marquee night, by any stretch: The Sudbury Wolves are in town, not one of those perennial league heavyweights that need chips knocked off their shoulders. The Attack haven’t been playing bad hockey per se, but they’ve let a few games get away, fallen out of the CHL’s top 10 and are chasing Sarnia in the Western Conference. Says Suzuki: “We didn’t sneak up on anyone the way we usually have. Everyone sees those rankings. We do. Other teams do. We were targets, for sure. Other teams got up to play us. I think we have our best hockey ahead of us.”

From the opening faceoff, it’s clear the Wolves don’t have the horses to run with the Attack — generously you might describe this as one of those rebuilding years in Sudbury but, in fact, their franchise hasn’t moved in cycles so much as it’s settled into mediocrity. Durzi, who skated miles all night long and played keep away with the puck back at the point, scored two minutes in and the template was set. The game was 3-1 after one, but not as close as the score suggests. The shots were 13-4 at the intermission and the Attack’s backup goalie, Mack Guzda, stone cold through the first 10 minutes, probably should have had the puck that slipped by him.

After 60 minutes, the score was 7-3, and the Attack had played down to their opponents. In fairness, Gill’s group had to be looking at the gruesome turnaround: a roadie in Sarnia against the CHL’s top-ranked team the following afternoon. A loss to the Sting couldn’t have been unexpected but the 7-0 shelling was. As Suzuki suggested, the Attack can’t sneak up on anyone anymore, as much as the Attack can’t sneak around Owen Sound. Everyone is watching for them, whether it’s on the ice or in the grocery store.

Photo Credits

Photography by Paul Bolasco
Design by Drew Lesiuczok