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Owen Sound shows strength in small numbers

OWEN SOUND, Ont. -- Behind her counter at the “Attack Pak Shack,” Helen Lewis is reveling in the excitement of her team’s first trip to the Ontario Hockey League final. In the booth full of Owen Sound Attack ephemera in the northwest corner of the Harry Lumley Bayshore Community Centre, she is busily planning bus trips to Mississauga for Tuesday night’s Game 5 and, in two weeks’ time, the MasterCard Memorial Cup.

Lewis has a kind face and speaks with such softness that even though it’s a good half-hour before the puck drops on Game 4 between the Owen Sound Attack and the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors, she has to shout over the din to be heard.

“We’ve waited a long time for this,” says Lewis, who proudly notes she’s missed a total of five home games in the last 22 years. “This is a really big thing to have hockey here.”

A really big thing, because many fans like Lewis still remember how close Owen Sound came to losing their beloved OHL franchise. If it hadn’t been for a group of six local investors – dubbed the “Super Six” – and the community rallying to raise money at the last minute, the final this week could have very well have been played in Cornwall, Ont.

It was back in 2000 that a group tried to purchase the team – then the Owen Sound Platers – from the Holody family, with the intent to move the franchise to the city on the banks of the St. Lawrence in Eastern Ontario.

“The energy was just unbelievable because everyone was just running on nerves because we did not want to lose our hockey team,” says Lewis, the Attack fan club president for the past 18 years. “We just had to do what we had to do.”

When the group from Cornwall put a $2-million price tag on the team, local investors were asked to help keep the team in the Grey-Bruce region, an almost three-hour drive northwest of Toronto. Dr. Bob Severs, the team doctor, was one of the people who answered the call, though it was with a little hesitation.

“It was middle-age crazy, I guess,” says Severs, one of the original Super Six. “My wife was more nervous than me because she thought that if it didn’t work that we’d have to leave town and she really likes it here. So, you know, it was pretty anxiety-provoking, but the group we got together are all pretty potent human beings and they’re very committed – and all very good business people. We were pretty sure it would work.”

Other business people in the area such as Tim Hortons franchisee Fay Harshman, former NHLer Paul MacDermid and his brother Peter, local restaurant owner Brian Johnson and businessman Frank Coulter, who owns a local supplier of agricultural products, also stepped up with their pocketbooks to save the team.

Johnson eventually sold his stake in the team to the rest of the group.

“That was a very big gamble for those people,” says Lewis. “They put up a lot of money. For something like (the OHL Final) to happen now, they deserve this.

“Not many people would put their life savings on the line for something like this.”

The Super Six told the community, and more specifically the city, that they were willing to put up their own money up to buy the team, but that they would need major renovations to put in more seating to make the arena economically viable enough to support an OHL team. And while councilors poured over the public budget looking for the roughly $2 million needed, the fans decided to take matters into their own hands.

“The energy was just unbelievable because everyone was just running on nerves, because we did not want to lose our hockey team,” says Lewis. “We just had to do what we had to do.”

On a Friday afternoon, fans in the city had raised more than $100,000 and by Monday, the community had rallied to raise over $600,000 to help with the remodeling to expand the seating in the 23-year-old arena. Lewis says she remembers people donating pledges in any amount – even $10 or $20 – whatever they could afford to help the city and their new ownership group revamp the rink.

“It wasn’t just six people that stepped up, it was a whole community that stepped up,” says Severs. “It was really inspiring to watch – to watch a whole community hold on to something that they found very dear.”

In 2002, the city of North Bay found itself in a similar situation when its OHL team, the Centennials, was put up for sale by majority owner Ted Thompson. That city, too, rallied with a “Save the Cents” campaign – but it fell short. The team was eventually sold to American Dick Garber and moved to Saginaw after 20 years in North Bay.

“That could have been us, but for the grace of God,” says Lewis when asked about the now-defunct Centennials.

As the OHL has expanded into larger markets, it’s the real sense of community and pride over what the Attack, their owners and the city have been able to accomplish together that has made Owen Sound one of junior hockey’s true gems. Owen Sound is the smallest community in the league with 22,000 residents. The city is abuzz with playoff fever, tickets are a hot commodity and many of the local businesses sport “Go Attack Go!” signs in windows or on their marquees.

“We always knew if we won we’d get the fans,” said Attack forward Joey Hishon, a native of Stratford, Ont. “They’ve done a great job of supporting us all year. To have the community support, it’s unbelievable.

“I think it’s the best city to play in.”

On Sunday afternoon, the Bayshore arena, which holds a capacity of 3,500 (2,983 seating) was filled with 3,242 fans – roughly 15 percent of the city’s population – to cheer their Attack to a 2-1 overtime victory. There’s no telling, however, how accurate that attendance figure was since the Attack were given a stern warning by the city fire marshal after announcing a crowd of 3,607 during a first-round game against the London Knights in early April. In contrast, Owen Sound’s playoff opponent in Mississauga is still having a hard time filling their rink of 5,800 despite having a city of 700,000 to draw from on the outskirts of Toronto, an alleged hockey hotbed.

According to Severs, hockey in Owen Sound plays an important part in the fabric of his community.

“Here the hockey team is really central to life,” he says. “I’m not sure you’d find any other team in Canada this size that could support an (OHL team), a Jr. B program and Triple-A (minor hockey) program and have over 400 women playing hockey. If there’s a hockeytown Ontario, this is it.”

Regardless of how the Attack fare in the final against Mississauga, they will have already earned a berth in the MasterCard Memorial Cup since the Majors had already secured a spot as the tournament host.

“It’s huge,” said Severs of the attention a Memorial Cup berth will garner for the city. “A few more people will know where Owen Sound is. They won’t confuse us with Parry Sound, which is usually the case.”

And though no one is looking quite past the Majors yet, with the series tied 2-2, the thought of their small community finally getting their passion for junior hockey recognized on the national stage will be rewarding nonetheless.

“It’s the culmination of the dream,” says Severs. “None of us that are involved with the ownership here got into this to try to have a retirement (nest egg) or anything. It doesn’t pay out anything. It just holds its own. So (one of) the paybacks for us would be the satisfaction of seeing the ultimate prize.”

Payback, too, for the fans and the community that came together 11 years ago to save the team they loved.

“This is just unbelievable,” says Lewis. “It’s just awesome. We always hoped.

“This was a dream. This was a dream that has come true.”