Coming home, on the Attack
He’d never scored in Hamilton before. Not in the big rink, anyway. There had been other games and other chances but he’d just never got the right bounce or fortuitous opening.
So when he slipped the puck into the net with just six minutes to play in his final visit to his hometown as a junior hockey player, well, he wasn’t completely satisfied. So, he shot it in again.
“I didn’t see it go in the first time,” Cordell James chuckles. “I was just making sure.”
The fact that it made the score 5-2 and wasn’t really impactful on the final outcome — his Owen Sound Attack won by that score in front of a loud crowd of nearly 9,000 in the Bulldogs’ second School Day Game of the year — was irrelevant. It meant an awful lot to him.
The win meant a ton to Matt Schmalz, too. The Dunnville native will be graduating from junior hockey at the end of this season and was making his last trip to FirstOntario Centre as well.
The fact that both were playing for the Attack is a bit of a fluke. A happy one.
Schmalz had been a stalwart with the Sudbury Wolves for the better part of four years but had advanced as far as the second round of the playoffs only once and finished dead-last in the Eastern Conference the past two seasons.
In the off-season, the six-footsix winger was dealt to Owen Sound to give him a chance to finish his career on a winner.
James spent three-and-a-half years in Barrie after starring with the Hamilton Jr. Bulldogs in minor hockey. The Colts had some really good teams in his stint there but had fallen on hard times this season and were at the bottom of the league.
At the trade deadline he was moved to the Attack.
Neither asked to be traded but neither balked at it either. Because in junior hockey, time is precious. Once you turn 20, you’re allowed to finish your season and then you’re out.
There are no extensions and no extra chances.
They didn’t want to bail on their longtime franchises. But this was their last chance to win something and they wanted a chance to do that.
Which is exactly what they’ve been doing.
The Attack is the OHL’s hottest team. Since mid-November, it’s gone 22-4 losing only to powerhouses Erie and London (twice each). At one point, it won 15 in a row.
Seemingly out of the blue, this small-market, easily overlooked team has become a legitimate threat to contend for the title.
“We’ve put together a pretty good streak right now,” Schmalz says. They’ve been a big, big part of it. James showed up and has scored at a vastly brisker pace than any other time in his career. His goal was his 14th goal in nine games as an Attack (or is it Attacker? Discuss among yourselves).
Schmalz is on pace to have his second-best year, behind only his third season with the Wolves when the roster was not as deep and he had endless ice time.
Throw in Burlington’s Trenton Bourque and Owen Sound has essentially become this area’s OHL backup team, which isn’t a bad thing for the Attack if you believe in history and tradition. After all, the only time the franchise won the championship, the winning goal was scored in overtime of Game 7 by former Hamilton Jr. Bulldog, Jarrod Maidens.
Both Schmalz and James are eyeing pro careers when this is done. Schmalz was a draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings and James is a free agent trying to get noticed. So, skating on a team that could go deep in the playoffs when more and more eyeballs would be on them for longer and longer would be huge.
But before that, they really want to somehow emerge from the insanely deep Western Conference — even with their twomonth hot streak, they remain in fifth place — win a title and have a shot at the Memorial Cup. That’s the dream.
For now, though, a win at home in front of family and friends was a nice memory to tuck away. One they may not have had if they’d stayed where they were. And for James, the goal was a lovely exclamation point.
Out of curiosity, did he pick up the puck to take home for the mantle? “No,” he says, breaking into a smile. “Didn’t think of that.”
Bulldogs’ Brandon Saigeon feels the squeeze from Owen Sound behind the net as 8,396 Catholic elementary school students took in Wednesday’s game.