Residents of recession-weary Windsor were dancing in the street Sunday night as the citys beloved Ontario Hockey League heroes, the Spitfires, beat out the best from the west and Quebec to take home the Memorial Cup for the first time in the organizations history.
Expect a big welcome home celebration Monday as the team returns from Rimouski, Que., after a brilliant season and a nail-biter of a series. Much has been made of this team that has been a bright spot in a city dealing with the gutting of the North American auto industry. A new group of dynamic and passionate owner-coaches took a team that many thought too young to have a chance of winning the Memorial Cup, and overcame two deaths in the extended Spits family, to pull out an epic season that has proven to be one of those real and genuine great moments in sports.
It was only a couple years ago that the beloved Spits were at a low point in the history of the club, which dates back to the ’40s. The team was stuck playing in the Barn, the almost 90-year old hulk of an arena in the citys core that had a reputation as being an intimidating place for fans of visiting teams. Outsiders could get egged, shouted down and intimidated, a problem made all the worse by previous owners too cheap to hire police or ushers to tame what was a pretty tough crowd.
But things really seemed to hit bottom for the Spits earlier this decade when a brutal hazing incident gone horribly wrong made national news and left a serious stain on the team. The old owners and coach were criticized for letting it all get out of hand, and the incident was a shame for the team and the city.
Since then things have only got worse in the City of Roses. As the Great Recession rolls across the globe Windsor has been hit harder than most. The city is typically the first Canadian region not a recession and this time was no different. Unemployment has spiked to double digits, dozens of small Tier Two auto parts plants have gone under along with a couple big Tier One plants.
As a result many in the city are downsizing their lives or working under a sort of permanent economic instability as the North American auto sector, such a pillar of the economy here, fundamentally restructures.
To say the city is in a doldrums is an understatement. Municipal workers are on strike and that has left garbage uncollected and the grass long in the parks, and the city is literally looking like crap these days (at least thats according to one local resident). So the fact the hometown hockey heroes have pulled off a miracle season is the stuff that local history is made of. Much of the credit for this team has to go to the new management who took over at the end of the 2005-’06 season. Made up of three locals (one businessman and a couple of former Leafs), these guys are getting all the credit in the city for providing one postive story among many current tales of woe.
The president, CEO and coach of the new Spits is Bob Boughner, a former Leaf and current vice-president0 with the National Hockey League Players Association. He, along with Warren Rychal, another former Leaf, and local businessman Bob Dobrich make up the new ownership group.
It looks like theyve got a hit on their hands. Each member of the ownership group has deep local connections and stays involved in charity work, and they have come together to freshen up the organization and throw off the taint of recent years. It was time to clean things up, and they did that, with their local pride and passion showing through.
Halfway through this season they moved into the new arena, a beautiful new $71-million operation featuring ushers in every section. Next door to the new arena the old General Motors trim plant has just been torn down, a symbol of all thats gone on here, but the fans are flocking to the new arena, which is said to be sold out for every home game now. The crowd is still loud and acts tough but you dont have to fear for your safety is the way one online London Knights fan put it.
Better yet, there is a new team of spirited young guys, many of them local, who turned in a season that will be remembered for years by the locals and former locals (of which I am one). It started off with a tragedy, however.
It was on Feb. 18, 2008 that city residents were shocked to hear that the then captain of the team, Mickey Renaud, had collapsed at the breakfast table and died of previously undetected genetic heart ailment. It was big news in this tight-knit city, and a bigger shock.
But the team ended up rallying around Renauds death. Since then Renauds jersey, No. 18 (a big seller in the city), has hung behind the bench for every game as the team set out on what has been a season of destiny.
As if that wasn’t enough drama, Rychel, suffered another tragedy two-and-a-half months ago when his brother died in a house fire in the area. According to local news reports, Andrew Rychel was found dead just inside the front door of his home. He had been trying to make his way out.
Nevertheless, Rychel and the team soldiered on. Stung by unexpected deaths, and with the city literally falling down around them (many locals on the team have relatives affected by the downturn), the team headed into the long regular season and began to rack up wins.
The team won every one of the last games they played at the Barn, and they lost lost 10 games over the season as Boughner coached the young and talented team to an amazing season that finished in the new building. When the final tally came in, it was the best regular season the Spits had ever played, with 57 wins, 10 losses and 1 shootout loss.
It was only fitting that they ended up winning the OHL crown in the new building, and they headed to the Memorial Cup to a play off with the best teams from the other Canadian leagues. The good work of the new management team has been recognized by the larger hockey community. Bob Boughner won the OHL Coach of the Year and the Canadian Hockey League Brian Kilrea Coach of the Year Award, while Warren Rychel took home OHL Executive of the Year.
You cant replace a manufacturing sector with a service sector industry like hockey, but the success of the team has returned a sense of pride to the city, the team and created a strong business around the brand. Its a great story of how local businessmen can have a real effect on their local economy by refinishing a local business and making it shine. So in that sense the team had already won.
But having taken the OHL crown it was off to Rimouski for this years Memorial Cup playoff. Many consider the Memorial Cup one of the hardest trophies to win in sports. The winning team not only has to battle to the top of its own league, but they have to beat out the winners from the rest of the Canadian junior hockey leagues. Few players ever make it to the Memorial Cup. Even fewer win it.
But here the Spits were in a tournament they had last visited in 1988. As the garbage piled up at home, and as the CAW went back into negotiations with GM, the Spits headed for the final showdown. But they also seemed to fall apart once they got to Quebec.
The team dropped its first two games, one game by a goal, the other in overtime, and quickly faced elimination. Was that it? Had the magical year come to naught? Not yet, though it would have been understood. They werent supposed to be here. Youre supposed to be an older team to make if through the OHL finals and then into the Memorial Cup. But the Spits were full of young players. They got here through sheer force of will, and they kept pouring that on.
In a big do-or-die game the Spits beat the Kelowna Rockets by a goal to get into a tie-breaker game, an almost heartbreaker that saw the Spits down 2-0 in the third. Thats when Dale Mitchell, 19-year-old from Mississauga, pulled off an inspired three goals in just a little over three minutes to pull the game, and the season of destiny, out of the fire. It was one of those magic moments in sports, and it was enough to get the Spits into the final game, which they handedly won yesterday after scoring on their first three shots. Sometimes you just cant stand in the way of destiny.
As the game wound into its final moments, text messages and phone calls began flying around the country between the Windsor Diaspora. But nowhere was the victory savoured more than in the city itself as thousands of Spits fans jammed the downtown core, waving flags and dancing in the streets.
Considering everything that has gone on over the last couple of years, no wonder it looked like Rychel and Boughner were holding back tears as the teammates and coaches jumped onto the ice to celebrate the victory. One of the assistants on the coaching staff carried Renauds No. 18 into the pileup.
I think hes definitely here in spirit, said Windsor forward Eric Wellwood (younger brother of Kyle) to a Windsor Starreporter. We dedicated this season to him and this was as much for him and his family as it was for us and the city of Windsor.
It was an amazing win, the kind of uplifting and affirming moment that the the world of sports sometimes offers up. That it happened in Windsor, a city way down on its luck and in need of that win, was a wonderful story. Congratulations to the new owners, the guys who made it all happen. A big congratulations.