Small town, huge heart

Owen Sound Attack captain Garrett Wilson (centre) carries The Robertson Trophy through the crowd...

Owen Sound Attack captain Garrett Wilson (centre) carries The Robertson Trophy through the crowd towards the team bus as the 2011 OHL Champion prepares to leave for the Memorial Cup on Wednesday May 18, 2011 at the Owen Sound Farmer's Market. (QMI Agency/James Masters)

Steve Buffery, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 4:11 AM ET

TORONTO - Last Sunday afternoon, Owen Sound mayor Deborah Haswell decided to step outside her house for a breath of fresh air.

She had been watching her hometown team, the Owen Sound Attack, play the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors for the OHL championship in an incredibly tense game that had gone into overtime. And with a break in the action, Her Worship needed to get outside and chill.

But soon after walking out the door, her phone rang and then she could hear horns blaring throughout town, and Haswell knew that the Attack had prevailed. For the first time since 1927, Owen Sound had won an Ontario junior A hockey championship.

Haswell said city councillor Jim McManaman called to ask what they should do. McManaman was already in his car driving around, his kids banging on pots and pans in celebration.

"I said: 'We're going to have a parade,'" said Haswell.

That was late Sunday afternoon.

The final game had been played at the Majors' home rink, the Hershey Centre in Mississauga, and as the Attack team bus made its way home to Owen Sound that afternoon, the players soon realized how big a deal the championship was to the town.

About an hour outside of Owen Sound, around the Dundalk area, fans had already begun lining up on the side of Hwy. 10. When the bus arrived at the city limits, it was greeted by fire trucks and police cars and people were already lined up three and four deep on the main street.

Finally, when the bus pulled into the Bayshore Community Centre, the home arena was packed. In a matter or hours, the word had gone out--via Twitter, Facebook, text messaging, radio, even the old-fashioned telephone-- that there was going to be a parade, a celebration. And, boy, was there ever.

And the small Georgian Bay town hasn't stopped celebrating.

"When a provincial or national championship is won by one of our teams, there's a long-standing tradition that we meet them at the edge of town with emergency vehicles and lots and lots of noise," said Haswell, who said the players were overwhelmed by the reception.

"Most of the players don't come from this area. They come from much larger centres, and I think they were really excited by the sense of community."

As she spoke on the phone on Wednesday afternoon from her office, Haswell said a send-off party was just getting under way outside in the City Hall parking lot for the players, who were leaving that night for the Memorial Cup, which begins at the Hershey Centre on Friday.

"The air around Owen Sound is electric," said the mayor. "It's palpable. You can feel the energy in the air. I've lived in Owen Sound just about my entire life and I've never seen anything like it. It's phenomenal."

The mayor's passion is understandable. It's not every day, or every year, or every decade, a small town wins something as important as the J. Ross Robertson Cup as OHL playoff champion.

The town's junior hockey team last won back '27, when it was the Owen Sound Greys, the year it also won is last Memorial Cup.

Adding to the joy of the occasion is the fact that the Attack has risen to Ontario junior hockey prominence despite the fact it plays in the smallest market in the OHL-- the city has just over 22,000 residents--and the second smallest in the Canadian Hockey League, after the Swift Current Broncos.

More than that, though the Owen Sound Attack is a healthy and vibrant franchise today, the team almost left town in 2000.

In fact, Haswell said, the departure was "imminently close."

When asked now what Owen Sound would be like without the Attack, Haswell said: "You know what? I can't imagine it."

Back in 2000, the Holody family, which had moved the old Guelph Platers franchise to Owen Sound for the 1989-90 OHL season, was close to selling the team to a buyer who was going to move it to Cornwall, Ont.

But then a group of local investors got together with the hope of buying the team and keeping it in town. It wasn't an easy process. There was a bidding war and a legal battle with another potential buyer, but finally a deal was struck following what Haswell calls an "insane" weekend of negotiations between the seller, the local investment team and the city.

"I was part of the council that helped broker a deal to keep the team here," said Haswell, "and I can tell you today that it was one of the best decisions I've been part of."

Peter MacDermid, a team governor and one of the owners, credits the team's fan club at the time with stepping up in a huge way during that fateful week of negotiations, raising well into the six figures, almost on a whim, after word got out that the team might be leaving town.

If it wasn't for the fan club, MacDermid said, the team likely would have left.

"I think they forced the city into realizing what the team means to the community," he said. "It was all small businesses wanting to help ... like a dairy farmer in Port Elgin who contributed something like a $1,000."

MacDermid, whose family owns the Woodland Park camping area in Sauble Beach, said it's not easy running a team in the OHL's smallest market, especially when the team doesn't always win.

Since purchasing the franchise in 2000, the Attack had never made it past the conference semifinals and had missed the playoffs three times, including last season.

"It forces us to run a pretty tight ship," he said. "We can't go buying anything too extravagant. We have a budget and we have to stick to it."

MacDermid said numerous sponsorship deals with local businesses and a concession deal at the arena-- which seats just more than 3,000 for hockey--helps keep the team afloat.

"If we had to rely on the gate and the gate alone, the team may not have been able to stay here," he said.

MacDermid and Haswell agree that the loyalty expressed by the local community towards the team is special and that, ultimately, is how the Attack survives.

"The fan base is so solid," said Haswell. "We might be one of the smallest markets in the OHL, but we've certainly demonstrated that we have the biggest heart. This community loves their sport, loves hockey. They're making Owen Sound very proud."


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