Tue Apr 12 01:36pm EDT
When the Owen Sound Attack needed a defining moment, Mark Reeds — named Ontario Hockey League coach of the year Tuesday in a close vote over Mississauga's Dave Cameron — furnished it.
Flash back to the last night of March when the Western Conference's top seed was knotted at 2-2 in a bitter first-round series with the London Knights. The Attack seemed to be at the perfection-is-the-enemy-of-good stage and likely deserved to be tied, but Reeds went to the mat post-game over the officiating. It served a purpose. The Attack have stepped up and won five consecutive games since to move within one win of the West final. While the OHL's Matt Leyden Trophy is based on the regular season, that shows how coaching is all about knowing what is needed and when.
"You can talk about a war of words, but I think the big thing was that we more or less challenged our team," Reeds recalled of that moment. "You don't have to win by five. You can win a 1-0 hockey game ... That was where our focus was in the London series. That little bit of banter in the paper, unfortunately, is a bit of a sidebar.
"We play in a just league and it's about the players," added Reeds, whose Attack had a 46-17-1-4 regular season as they won their first division title since moving to Owen Sound in 1989, the year before this season's overages were born. "When you make comments like that obviously you're sticking up for your team and you're sticking up for your players and at that time that was something I felt needed to be said."
Close vote over Cameron
It was two-coach race with Reeds (foreground in photo) collecting 60 of a possible 100 points to edge Cameron, who garned 56. The latter has plenty of pressure as the bench boss of the bull's-eye-wearing MasterCard Memorial Cup-host Mississauga St. Michael's Majors. Coaching or managing the Attack means pressure crammed into in a fishbowl that is the OHL's tiniest market. While there is no laurel-resting in the post-season, even with a 3-0 second-round lead over the Plymouth Whalers, Reeds and GM Dale DeGray faced heavy criticism after the club crashed to ninth in 2009-10 and missed the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.
Now Reeds has gone from head on a platter to leading the team once known as Platers to new heights.
"It's been tremendous," "We've taken a lot of criticism over the last three years. I thank the organization for giving me the opportunity to proceed for a fourth year with the lack of real success we'd had. It would have been real easy for them to look elsewhere ... there's always criticism when you're not performing to the level people expect. I think with Dale being new and our vision for what we need to do is not just going to happen in a year or two. We're seeing the hard work come to fruition here."
Owen Sound was decent on paper last season with talents such as Colorado Avalanche first-round pick Joey Hishon and captain Garrett Wilson, a Phoenix Coyotes prospect who is the team nominee for the OHL's outstanding player award. DeGray's blueline-bolstering moves — defencemen Jesse Blacker, Jay Gilbert, Matt Petgrave and Matt Stanisz have all come via trade since October 2009 — helped them improve their defence by nearly a goal per game. On the eve of this season, DeGray made a big trade with the Niagara IceDogs which brought in Petgrave, forward Andrew Shaw and left wing Andrew Fritsch, a point-per-game forward who should hear his name called at the NHL draft.
Meanwhile, Reeds shepherded his team through what he calls a "continually changing" goaltending situation. Starter Scott Stajcer, a team leader, missed four months due to hip surgery. Jordan Binnington, 17, a NHL draft prospect, played much more than expected. DeGray also acquired 19-year-old Michael Zador, who had two shutouts to help finish off London, then got the flu midway through Game 1 against Plymouth on April 7, giving way to Stajcer. Through all that, the Attack didn't waver.
"We overhauled our team a bit," Reeds said. "Finally, we're getting to be a group that knows the style we want to play ... it's been exciting being along for the ride with the Garrett Wilsons, the Scott Stacjers, the Joey Hishons, those are the leaders on our team."
Reeds' opening remarks Tuesday were dedicated to crediting the Attack staff. A big move DeGray made was hiring assistant coach Terry Virtue, who has family in the region, away from the WHL's Tri-City Americans. The Ams have a reputation for defensively sound hockey, which the Attack seem to have cultivated.
"He's done a tremendous job, he's been a great sounding board," Reeds said of Virtue. "He comes from winning programs, having won two American Hockey League championships and won a Western Hockey League conference championship [last season with the Tri-City Americans]."
It's been a dream season for the boys by the Bay. It's given the Attack coach, who played for the St. Louis Blues in the 1980s and coached in the AHL before coming to junior, a chance to achieve the rare feat of having played and coached in the Memorial Cup.
"I was fortunate enough to play with the Peterborough Petes in the late '70s and win three Ontario championships and play in all three Memorial Cups, only winning one," Reeds said. "Nothing would really top it but being able to put your name on a Memorial Cup as a coach as well as player."
As an aside, Reeds is the 12th coach in the last 15 seasons for a coach from a current Western Conference team to win the Matt Leyden Trophy. Only Hockey Hall of Famer Brian Kilrea, now the Ottawa 67's GM, has won out of the East in that span with the last honour coming in 2002-03.
It is a curious pattern since the two-step voting process ensures three finalists from each conference (Reeds, Erie's Robbie Ftorek and Plymouth's Mike Vellucci from the West; Cameron, Brampton's Stan Butler and Ottawa's Chris Byrne in the East made the short list). Perhaps that reflects there is more depth and width of media coverage in the West. Or it could be chalked up to the respect for the West's strength, where a .500 point percentage is a requirement just to finish eighth.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.