It started in Dundalk, more than 60 kilometres from home, as the Owen Sound Attack's bus made its way up Highway 10, which runs northwest to this small city on the edge of Georgian Bay from the heart of Mississauga, where the Attack beat the hometown Mississauga St. Michael's Majors for their first Ontario Hockey League championship.
The players were told by text message something might be happening but couldn't believe it when they looked out the windows. Fans were standing on the side of the windy, rain-swept highway cheering the first OHL champions from that part of the country. The franchise has an OHL title and a Memorial Cup title in its history but that was as the Guelph Platers, who moved to Owen Sound in 1989. This title, which came with an overtime win in a thrilling seven-game series, and the first trip to a Memorial Cup belongs to Owen Sound.
As the buses travelled past Dundalk and through the other towns and villages on the highway - Flesherton, Markdale, Chatsworth and the like - the crowds grew. By the time they hit the hill leading down to the Harry Lumley Bayshore Community Centre, a couple of thousand people lined the street. A parade, organized on a couple of hours notice, escorted the boys into their home arena, which was packed with a near-capacity crowd of about 3,000. The party went into the wee hours.
"To me, that's junior hockey," said Attack general manager Dale DeGray. "That's your market showing their support, showing their thanks."
It was the crowning touch to a day on which 3,500 Owen Sound fans descended on the 5,700-seat Hershey Centre in Mississauga for the deciding game of the series. Thanks to Mississauga's tepid support of the Majors, the Attack were essentially the home team.
"Our fans have been unbelievable through my four years here," said Attack forward Joey Hishon. "We've been through a lot of ups and downs and they're just relentless in their support."
When the Memorial Cup starts Friday at the Hershey Centre, the Attack pack is expected to make Owen Sound the de facto home team among the Majors, the Kootenay Ice from the Western Hockey League and the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Attack officials say at least 3,000 locals are expected to make the trip to Mississauga for their team's first game, Saturday against Kootenay.
"It will be wild, just like the championship game," said Bob Severs, Attack president and one of five owners who rescued the team 12 years ago when the former owner had it headed out of town. "Our kids are calling [the Hershey Centre]Bayshore South."
There are 22,000 people in Owen Sound and perhaps another 50,000 in the surrounding area, which makes the city one of the smallest markets in junior hockey. But their loyalty is huge.
"People care about this," Severs said. "They take it personally. They feel they've been part of the effort, which they have been."
This is a long way from the luxury boxes and multiuse big arenas in the NHL, where a few of these players will end up, or even some junior markets such as London, Kitchener, Windsor and Barrie in the OHL, which have scaled-down NHL-style arenas with luxury suites and club seats that pull in a lot of money. In Owen Sound, the Attack may be the biggest thing in town but with just 3,100 seats at the Bayshore, plus 10 boxes, Severs and his fellow owners need that personal investment from the fans.
Thanks to this year's playoff run, there was no trouble getting that commitment and a lot of new fans. As the players came off the ice after practice earlier this week, Matt Bittel and his son Jesse, 7, collected autographs.
Bittel is the principal of a small Christian private school who comes from the United States. Neither he nor his son knew anything about hockey until a year ago when a local business bought a pair of season tickets for the school as part of an Attack marketing program. Now Bittel and several parents are buying their own tickets - when they can get them.
"They're a tough ticket to get," he said. "A year ago, my son wouldn't have known a thing about hockey. Now he wants to get everybody's autograph."
Down at TJ's Coffee Shop and Lunch Bar, Jason Cranny, 36, describes himself as a casual fan but says he might get season tickets now. "They created believers out of the community," he said. "Now it's impossible to get tickets."
Attack business manager Ray McKelvie, who has been with the team since it moved north in 1989, said Cranny is the kind of fan the team is looking to add to its base of about 1,300 season-ticket holders.
"We have more of that 20-to-35 age group than we ever had before and that's great," he said. "We may be a little different than other cities but basically we're the same - everybody likes a winner."
The difference for this market is revenue. The Attack have the same expenses as every other OHL team - the annual budget is just under $2-million - but not as much revenue as some. Not when the average ticket price is $17 in a building one-third the size of the London Knights' arena.
"We can't make bad business decisions," Severs said. "Everything has to be very calculated, very carefully done. There is a very small margin for error. That's the biggest thing."
But the small-town loyalty also helps when it comes to fundraising. The team's fan club regularly donates equipment and Severs says none of the owners has ever taken as much as a dime of profit. The money is plowed back into the team, which has a dressing room and training facilities that are the envy of many others.
The Attack shook off their underdog status by beating the Majors and established themselves as a serous contender for the Memorial Cup. At least three of the players, Hishon, fellow forward Garrett Wilson and defenceman Jessie Blacker, will have a little extra motivation. Last Christmas, they were late cuts by Majors head coach Dave Cameron, who coached the Canadian team for the world junior championship.
Wilson shrugged off the slight but Hishon has not forgotten, which is why beating the Majors in their own building was so much fun.
"I definitely had some motivation from that," he said. "I wanted to show them on that stage I could play in important games and I think I did a good job doing that."