Owen Sound driven by ‘fear’ of Western foes

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - TERI PECOSKIE

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

JOHN REN­NI­SON, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

Con­nor Wal­ters will face his old team­mates at the FirstOn­tario Cen­tre on Wed­nes­day.

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