Sizzling Majors stoke fan fever in Mississauga

Dec. 3, 2010

By Morgan Campbell

On a recent evening, a group of players from the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors strolled into a movie theatre at Square One mall and ran into something unexpected — a fan who recognized their faces.

Before the lights went down, the fan approached the teenagers to praise them for playing their way to the top of the Ontario Hockey League.

The first-place Majors roster includes some OHL stars but in Mississauga, where residents are still learning to embrace the team, celebrity treatment is rare.

“That’s never happened before to us around here,” says left winger Devante Smith-Pelly. “I guess it’s starting to grow in the community. People are starting to notice.”

That attention figures to increase dramatically if the Majors maintain the sizzling pace they’ve set in the first two months of the OHL season.

A 3-2 win over the Brampton Battalion on Thursday pushed the Majors to 23-2-0-1, a record that tops all of major junior hockey.

And while their stellar record is the early-season culmination of a steady three-year climb through the OHL, the unsolicited movie theatre love is a small triumph in a longer campaign to win local followers.

With the Memorial Cup coming to Mississauga in May, Majors players and coaches are confident in their prospects on and off the ice.

Three weeks ago, the Majors sold out a game for the first time since moving to Mississauga in 2007, and they enter Saturday with a nine-game win streak and a confident attitude matching the title of the movie they had gathered to watch: Unstoppable.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for people to see one of the greatest junior teams ever,” says club owner Eugene Melnyk. “All that patience of waiting and building, and here we are.”

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The Mississauga St. Mike's Majors, featuring captain and points leader Casey Cizikas, are the top-ranked junior team in the country. TANNIS TOOHEY/TORONTO STAR

On Oct. 3 in Ottawa, Majors coach Dave Cameron fumed as he watched his team sleepwalk through a 7-2 loss to the 67s.

The season wasn’t supposed to start this way.

Last spring, the Majors won the right to host the 2011 Memorial Cup, their bid tied to projections that last year’s club, which reached the Eastern Conference final, would blossom into one of the Canadian Hockey League’s best.

After two wins to start the season, the loss in Ottawa gave the Majors a bitter dose of humility but instead of ripping into his team, Cameron let them simmer.

Many of its key players, including Smith-Pelly and captain Casey Cizikas, had joined the Majors in 2007, when Cameron returned to the club after three seasons in the AHL. He knew his team well and if he had judged them correctly, he knew they would learn from the loss on their own.

“My team is mature and they know when they play bad,” he says. “That’s the advantage of having an older team.”

Since then, the Majors have dropped only one game in regulation and lost a shootout against Erie, adding 21 more wins to top the CHL rankings.

The secret to the Majors’ early-season breakthrough?

Cameron says there is none beyond relentless two-way play.

“Four lines, north-south, simple hockey,” says Cameron, who will coach Team Canada in the world junior hockey championship later this month.

As a Windsor Spitfires standout, right winger Justin Shugg found the Majors a well-coached team with discipline and hustle. Now a member of the Majors, Shugg says the squad does exactly what they did last year, only better.

“It’s a bunch of hard-working guys that will go to the wall for each other,” says Shugg, whose 16 goals tie him with Smith-Pelly for the team lead. “We’re all buying into a system here. We definitely take pride in the defensive game.”

Through Friday, the Majors had scored a league-best 113 goals and allowed just 60; no other OHL team had surrendered fewer than 77.

Cameron says the catalyst for the Majors’ transformation is Melnyk, who bought the club in 1996 and invested heavily in performance when he moved them to Mississauga in 2007.

Between the $100,000 fitness facility, the state-of-the-art video equipment and the specialist coaches Melnyk sometimes brings in, Cameron says the Majors’ resources rival those of an NHL team.

“It’s invaluable,” he says. “It allows us to eliminate all the excuses.”

But Melnyk traces the team’s current success to Cameron’s return.

Cameron first took over as Majors head coach in 2000-2001, and the record he compiled over his four seasons (185-87-30) helped propel him to a head coaching job in the AHL.

In 2003, Cameron began a three-year stint with the Binghamton Senators — missing the playoffs his final two seasons — while the Majors’ stock plummeted. In four seasons under Cameron, the Majors never finished lower than second in their division, but in the three seasons without him they never finished higher than fourth.

With his current and former teams both struggling, Cameron returned to the Majors, a move Melnyk still admires.

“I don’t think in the history of hockey you’ve ever seen a guy who’s already a coach in the AHL come back (to the OHL) and say, ‘I’ll do this for you.’” Melnyk says. “He came back and look what he’s done. It’s just phenomenal.”

With Cameron back in control the Majors won 31 games in 2007-2008, 39 the following year and 42 last season.

This year they’re on pace to win 61.

Whichever man started the Majors’ ascent, coach and owner agree the team owes the bulk of its success to the players, and their development as a group.

Over their three seasons together, Cizikas and his teammates — especially Smith-Pelly — have developed a telepathy that allows them to think a split-second ahead of opponents.

“I know if I give (Smith-Pelly) the puck he’s going to shoot it 98 per cent of the time just because of the shot he has,” says Cizikas, who leads the team with 32 points. “When I give him the puck, I’m going straight to the net with my stick on the ice.”

While the on-ice product has improved steadily, the Majors are still struggling to win fans on the rebound from the IceDogs, the team Melnyk bought and quickly sold before moving the Majors to Mississauga.

Of the three home games that have drawn more than 4,000 paid customers, two were against the IceDogs, who now play in St. Catharines. On Nov. 19 the second-largest paid crowd of the season, 4,382, witnessed the Majors’ second straight win over the IceDogs.

Two days later, a win over Peterborough attracted just 2,173.

Still, media relations director Ben Hodge points out that average home attendance, now at 3,144, is up roughly 900 spectators over last season.

And even if the Majors don’t draw every night, players say that on most nights they can feel the difference in fan support.

“In the three years I’ve been here the fans have gotten better and better,” Smith-Pelly says. “It’s definitely improved over the last couple of years.”

Copyright 2010 Toronto Star

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