Owen Sound driven by ‘fear’ of Western foes
They don’t draw big crowds like the London Knights, and, unlike the Erie Otters, their roster is conspicuously short on superstars.
Yet, season after season, the Owen Sound Attack manage to compete with the best in the Ontario Hockey League’s tough Western Conference. How do they do it? “Fear,” says GM Dale DeGray. “Honestly. It’s partly fear. If you aren’t competitive on that side, it can eat you up pretty quick.”
DeGray, a 53-year-old former NHLer from Oshawa, has been pulling the strings in Owen Sound for the last decade. He missed the playoffs in two of his first three seasons, and hasn’t iced a team that finished with fewer than 30 wins (or out of the post-season) since.
It’s a feat he’s proud of, and one matched by just one other OHL club (that’s London, which plays in a far larger market and draws three times as many fans as Owen Sound on average). This year, the Attack accomplished it in midJanuary in the midst of a franchise-record 15-game win streak.
Still, DeGray finds it hard to articulate exactly how he’s done it. But fear, he reiterates, is the why.
“I think we could talk about a lot of teams that are quite similar,” he says — teams he confronts regularly in the conference and within the Midwest Division that are strong year in and year out.
“That’s my competition and that’s what I have to deal with,” he adds. “So how do you — and why do you want to — let your guard down at some point? That, quite honestly, is how I look at the situation.”
Owen Sound, which visits Hamilton for a rare morning meeting Wednesday, is fifth in the conference and surging. Over the past 20 games — a stretch in which it’s outscored the competition 96-43 — it has the best record in the OHL with 17 wins.
It’s going to be a tough game — John Gruden knows that. With the Attack, it always is.
They play really fast, says the Bulldogs head coach, and they’re very disciplined. “That allows them to win hockey games.”
Troy Smith, Gruden’s former associate coach who faced DeGray’s club often during his nine years behind the bench in Kitchener, agrees.
Owen Sound is a tough place to play, he says — just like the Attack are a tough team to play against.
“They’re very well-disciplined, they play a very tight, structured game and most of all, they’ve had great goaltending,” he adds. Gruden knows that, too. In the words of the Bulldogs boss, Montreal Canadiens prospect Michael McNiven is “the best goalie in the league” and his 2.28 goals-against average, 0.916 save percentage and three shutouts back that up. Before him, though, there was Jordan Binnington, the OHL’s goalie of the year in 2013, and Scott Stajcer, who helped lead the team to a league championship in 2011.
“I played the game and I know how important it is to have great goaltending,” DeGray, the Attack manager, admits.
“I mean, I think anyone with great goaltending can have a huge amount of success, there’s no question.”
But good coaching, a deep roster and, perhaps most of all, a desire to win, have also played a role.
Defenceman Connor Walters played parts of his three seasons with Owen Sound before being traded to Hamilton. He experienced that culture firsthand.
“That team is all about winning. Winning attitude,” says the 19year-old Welland native. “When I was there at camp, we got a booklet of everything we needed to do to win ... We had tests on it. Like, every month, a test on it.”
The quizzes, he explains, included questions on everything from the team’s systems to its game plan — which, as anyone you ask will attest to, is defined by hard, physical play and the refusal to give up so much as an inch.
“Owen Sound has always been a tough team,” Walters says. “They grind it out.” Owen Sound Wednesday, 10:30 a.m., FirstOntario Centre
The storyline: The Attack have lost just twice in regulation in the past two months, which means they come into Hamilton on fire
Player to watch: Lead scorer Petrus Palmu notched four points, including the game-winning goal, in a 7-5 decision over the Bulldogs in September — the teams’ only other meeting this season
Notable alumni: Wayne Simmonds, Brad Richardson, Mark Giordano, Bobby Ryan
Hamilton connection: Matt Schmalz is from Dunnville, Cordell James is from Hamilton and Burlington’s Trenton Bourque is a Jr. Bulldogs grad
Tune in: Since this is a school day game, tickets aren’t for sale to the public — tune in to Cable 14 or TSN 1150 for the live broadcast instead
Connor Walters will face his old teammates at the FirstOntario Centre on Wednesday.