When the Hamilton Pistols were building the team to defend their title, they knew that the salary cap would be a challenge. In the eyes of most observers, they did a good job putting together a strong squad while remaining under the cap. But the savings had to come somewhere, and the Pistols chose to skimp a bit on their minor-league roster. To fill the vacancies with their CHL affiliate, the Oshawa Drive, Hamilton signed a number of minimum-salary journeymen, players that no other team wanted.
It was widely assumed that Oshawa would spend the season in the basement. Not ideal, but a small price to pay if the Pistols could defend their title. Well, Hamilton’s title defense is off to a fine start, but the Drive aren’t sticking to the script. Instead of collapsing, they’ve become one of the CHL’s two undefeated teams (the Milwaukee Hogs are the other).
How did they do it? According to Oshawa’s players, it’s coach Harvey Williams that deserves the credit. Williams, one of the league’s most colorful characters, has never been one for beating around the bush. So when his players showed up for their first practice, the coach didn’t mince words, and addressed the preseason predictions about his club head on.
“I’ve been reading about you guys,” Williams told his players. “Seems like everyone thinks you’re a bunch of scrubs and rejects they pulled off the trash pile. Seems like the only reason you’re here is because no one else would have you. Seems like everyone thinks you’re the worst piece-of-[expletive] team in the league.”
After a pause, Williams grinned. “Which sounds perfect to me. ‘Cause you know who else they say [expletive] like that about? Me. I’m a sloppy old drunk with a bad ticker who probably oughta be in jail or dead. The only reason I’m here is because they can’t afford anybody better, or so they think.”
“Well, guess what?” the coach added. “[Expletive] ’em all. They can all go straight to hell. While you’re getting ready for this season, I want you thinking about one thing and one thing only: the look on the faces of all those bastards when we go out and kick the [expletive] out of ’em. It’s gonna be mighty sweet.”
Williams’ players eagerly took his message to heart, and they’ve been making the so-called “experts” eat their words ever since. Leading the cahrge are a pair of players who believe they shouldn’t be in the CHL at all.
Twenty-year-old center Hilliard Macy expected to be up with the Pistols this season. Hamilton had multiple openings in the middle, as both Eddie Costello and J.C. Marais were on expiring contracts. The front office assured Macy he would be a Pistol in 2020. But his rookie season was underwhelming, and the team decided he wasn’t ready. They re-signed Marais, added veteran Marco Venezio, and sentenced Macy to another year in Oshawa.
For Macy, this was a crushing disappointment. But Williams encouraged him to think of it as an opportunity. “They want you to prove them wrong,” the coach told Macy. “They want you to get pissed off and play so well that they have to bring you up. I know it hurts now, but this could be the best thing that ever happened to you.”
Thus inspired, Macy is off to a red-hot start. He’s tied for second in the CHL with five goals, including a hat trick that fueled Friday’s 4-3 win over Baltimore. His game has also acquired a physical edge that was lacking before.
“Coach Williams told me to play mad, and that’s what I’m doing,” said Macy. “He didn’t let me get down on myself, and that’s made a real difference for me.”
Goalie Hector Orinoco, 24, signed a two-year extension in the offseason went to training camp with the Pistols and played several preseason games. He played brilliantly – in fact, he handily outplayed both starter Lasse Koskinen and incumbent backup Ron Mason. But both Koskinen and Mason were too expensive to demote, so it was Orinoco who wound up in Oshawa yet again.
Williams reminded Orinoco that Mason’s contract is up at the end of the season. “They want you to be Lasse’s backup next season,” the coach said. “You’re younger and cheaper. As long as you play good, they won’t go looking around for someone else. So don’t give ’em a reason to look.”
Thus far, Orinoco’s been just as brilliant as he was in the preseason, going 3-0-0 with a league-leading 0.98 GAA and a .949 save percentage. “The way I see it, this is my audition,” Orinoco told reporters. “Hopefully that’s for the Pistols, but if not, then someone else will notice and pick me up, If I keep playing like this, they won’t be able to ignore me.”
There’s a long way to go, and it’s anybody’s guess whether the Drive can keep up their pace. But there’s no doubt that Williams has his team thnking and playing like champions, instead of the “trash pile” that the experts expected.