The last time the CIBC Canada Russia Series came to Owen Sound, Markus Phillips and Nick Suzuki were just getting their OHL careers off the ground.
The ninth and 14th overall picks of the 2015 OHL Priority Selection, Phillips and Suzuki helped lead the Attack to their best campaign in franchise history last season, a year that featured 49 wins, 102 points, a 15-game winning streak and an appearance in the Western Conference Championship Series.
The pair who came in the first round of the same draft as a result of 2014 first rounder Victor Mete being dealt to the London Knights, Suzuki and Phillips were both rewarded for their outstanding play last season as the former went 13th overall to the expansion Vegas Golden Knights and the latter was chosen in the fourth round by the Los Angeles Kings this past summer in Chicago.
“It’s been a really fun three years with Markus here in Owen Sound,” reflected Suzuki who sits tied for third in OHL scoring with 28 points (10-18–28) this season. “The two of us actually knew each other pretty well before the draft and our friendship has only grown since then. Winning is fun, and we’ve been able to do a lot of that with the Attack.”
Embarking on an audition for Hockey Canada’s National Junior Team this week, the two Owen Sound teammates have competed on the international stage together before, both representing Canada at the 2016 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in the Czech Republic.
While it doesn’t have the bright lights of a London, Kitchener or Windsor, playing in a city of 22,000 has its perks as Phillips has learned. The Toronto kid has formed a love for Owen Sound.
“It’s a small town but we’re the big ticket,” he said with a grin. “It’s an awesome feeling knowing that pretty much every night you’re going to have a sold out barn, playing in front of people who follow the team through thick and thin.
“It’s an awesome experience that I’m grateful to have.”
Off to a 9-5-0-2 start under new head coach Todd Gill in the perennially competitive Midwest Division, both 18-year-olds agree that the Attack haven’t played their best hockey yet this season.
“I think we all agree we’ve played below our standards so far,” Phillips noted. “We’ve done some good things along the way, but we’re trying to get back to being the team we know we can be.”
Newly installed head coach Gill, a former 16-year NHL veteran on the blue line, replaces outgoing OHL Coach of the Year Ryan McGill who took an assistant coaching position with the Vegas Golden Knights.
Gill, who coached three seasons with the Kingston Frontenacs from 2011-14, has made a strong impression on Phillips’ development out of the gate this season.
“He’s very patient and a very knowledgable guy, which helps me a lot,” he said. “He has given me some good advice in a few areas of my game this season and I’m looking forward to learning more as the season moves along.”
The Attack have been included in the CHL Top 10 Rankings four different times this season and have benefitted from the play of other contributors in standout defenceman Sean Durzi, veteran winger Kevin Hancock, Philadelphia Flyers prospect Maksim Sushko and draft eligible centreman Aidan Dudas.
Third-year winger Jonah Gadjovich, a second round pick of the Vancouver Canucks this past summer, has been ruled out for Game 3 after suffering an injury to his left hand back on October 14th. He and injured Guelph Storm winger Givani Smith have been replaced by the Mississauga Steelheads duo of Owen Tippett and Ryan McLeod for Thursday’s action.
Team OHL won the last CIBC Canada Russia Series encounter in Owen Sound back in 2015 as Mackenzie Blackwood (Barrie Colts) made 25 saves in a 3-0 victory.
Thursday’s Game 3 from Owen Sound can be seen on Sportsnet Ontario, East and Pacific when the puck drops at 7:00pm ET/4:00pm PT.