The sign in the stands at the Hershey Centre told the story on Sunday afternoon. Painted in large, red letters it read: “Welcome To The Bayshore South.”
And despite being home to the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors, the arena – some 180 kilometers south of Owen Sound’s Harry Lumley Bayshore Community Centre - was quickly transformed into a home-away-from-home by Attack fans that made the drive in droves to witness history.
That historic moment came in Game 7 a short 3:27 into the first overtime period as Owen Sound forward Jarrod Maidens scored his second goal of the game to give the Attack their first-ever Ontario Hockey League title with a 3-2 victory over the Majors.
“To think that there’s probably 3,000 Owen Sounders here in Mississauga - that says it all,” said Dr. Bob Severs, Attack president and part owner. “It’s very gratifying.”
Most of the fans in a rare Hershey Centre sellout crowd of 5,517 went wild when Maidens, a rookie who recently turned 17, put a slowly trickling puck past Majors goalie JP Anderson.
“It was one of those pucks were you just watched it slowly go in,” said the Grimsby, Ont., native on the ice after the game amid deafening chants of ‘Go Attack Go!’
“It’s one of the greatest feelings. The guys worked hard for this.”
Even though they were the Western Conference champions and one of the best teams in the OHL during the regular season, the Attack (46-17-1-4) were still looked upon as underdogs in the series against the favoured Majors (53-13-0-2). The Eastern Conference champs had built their team knowing they were going to host the MasterCard Memorial Cup tournament which starts on Friday. In fact, there weren’t many that picked the Attack to make it to the OHL Final to begin with, though Maidens believes going though the playoffs without great expectations placed on them played to their advantage.
“That was our motivation going through (the playoffs) the whole time, just proving people wrong,” said Maidens. “Just showing that we have what it takes to go far.”
All the scoring in the game had happened during the first period and as the game progressed it was clear neither team wanted to be the first to make a game-changing mistake. Entering overtime tied 2-2 and the shots an equally tight 26-25 in favour of the Attack, history was still favouring Owen Sound which had also won Game 3 and 4 with goals in overtime.
“We just knew we had a good overtime record and that as long as we stayed patient but aggressive, you never know what could happen,” said Attack forward Robby Mignardi. “We knew it was going to be a greasy goal like that, just banging it in. That’s basically what our plan was, to play smart and not to let up.”
Mignardi, who had his 11-game point streak snapped on Sunday, was voted by the media as the recipient of the Wayne Gretzky 99 Award, as the OHL’s top playoff performer. In 22 playoff games this spring, Mignardi scored 15 goals and nine assists to cap his final season of junior hockey.
“To be the playoff MVP, I never would have thought this,” said the 20-year-old native of Richmond Hill, Ont. “Coming into this year I said this numerous times that I’m more of a role player, but to score all these goals in the playoffs, it’s just been an unbelievably amazing feeling for me and I’m just happy I could help my team win this game.”
A good half-hour after the game had ended there were a handful of Majors in the dressing room still sitting in their gear, trying to come to terms with the loss. The defeat was particularly hard for captain Casey Cizikas to accept considering he, like Majors head coach Dave Cameron, had also lost out on world junior gold after Russia rallied for a 5-3 win against Canada in the final back in January.
“It definitely stings,” said Cizikas. “I would say this (loss) hurts even more. This is your team, this is your family and you’re with these guys every single day. World juniors is one of the biggest tournaments, but this trophy (the J. Ross Robertson Cup) you try so hard to win all year. You work your ass off all year and you see these guys day-in, day-out. To lose a game like this after you’ve come so far – it stinks.”
Cameron said his main focus now will be to try to regroup and refocus his Majors for the Memorial Cup. The Majors will open the tournament on Friday against the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champion Saint John Sea Dogs.
"It's too early to think about next week yet," said Cameron. "We've got to absorb this. You have to absorb it and then you have to let it go and then you have to get ready. But, we're just in absorption stage right now and it'll take a while."
On Sunday, though, the loss was still too fresh to put on the backburner and begin thinking about the next stage of their season.
“This one is definitely going to burn in the back of your mind a bit,” said Cizikas. “That’s the way things work sometimes. That could have been us scoring that OT winner, this could be (Owen Sound) on the other side. We have to get back on the ice and hopefully in a couple days – or even tomorrow – just sort out the kinks and get ready for the Memorial Cup.”
In the meantime, while the Majors were dealing with dejection, the celebration in Owen Sound was in full swing. Owen Sound is the smallest market in the OHL and one of the smallest in Canada, with only 22,000 people in the area to draw from, but that didn’t stop Attack fans from packing and cheering on their team.
“We were hearing the other day that there were going to be between 2,500 and 3,000 Owen Sound people here,” said Mignardi. “Basically we play well at home and this was like a home game for us. They did their job, we did our job and it was amazing for us to have their support.”
Before the Attack had even reached Owen Sound, the city’s mayor, Deb Haswell, had announced that the team would be greeted with a parade that was scheduled to start Sunday evening at Centennial Tower at the south entrance to the city. According to online reports, there were some 800 people who had already converged at the Harry Lumley Bayshore Community Centre to welcome the team and the thousands of fans back home from Mississauga.
When asked if fans in Owen Sound would sleep on Sunday night, Mignardi laughed.
“I don’t think they’ve slept in the last month,” he said. “Were going to have fun and we’re going to celebrate. We know we’ve done something amazing for the community and for the organization, but next week is the grand prize and we’re going to be ready for that.”