Spitfires’ run one to behold

Instead of going down kicking and screaming to the bitter end, one of the finest spells of success in Canadian hockey history went out with a whimper last Wednesday night.
Lost in the shadow of the wild and crazy Game 7s that took place in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires saw their chance at winning a third-straight Memorial Cup title come to an end with a 10-4 loss to the Owen Sound Attack in Game 5 of their Western Conference final, which marked the first time since March 27, 2008 that the “Spits” had lost a playoff series.
To win the Memorial Cup, heck, to even get into the Memorial Cup just once, is a huge deal. But to do it two years in a row, and nearly have the chance to get a “three-peat,” well, that’s almost unheard of.
And to do it the way that the Spitfires did is something most Hollywood script writers would have a hard time believing.
Up until the last few seasons, this was a franchise that had never won a Memorial Cup, hadn’t won the OHL title since 1988, only had made it the conference final once since (2002), and also had gone through a hazing fiasco in 2005 that led to teammates Akim Aliu and Steve Downie dropping the gloves in a practice, and the eventual firing of head coach and general manager Moe Mantha.
Despite a new ownership group that came in during the summer of 2006, which also saw Bob Boughner take over behind the bench and Warren Rychel become the new GM, the Spitfires missed out on the playoffs again the following season—leaving some wondering if they would ever get out of the doldrums.
Well, drafting Taylor Hall and Ryan Ellis in the first two rounds in the 2007 OHL draft certainly helped change that.
With those two players joining the fold, along with other players from the previous drafts, the Spitfires made a huge turnaround in the 2007/08 campaign as they improved their win total from 18 to 41 and saw their point total jump from 43 to 94.
Despite the improvement, the team was unable to enjoy its newfound success as on Feb. 18, 2008, team captain and local native Mickey Renaud died in his home from an undetected heart condition.
With the loss of their leader, the Spitfires went through an entire roller-coaster of emotions throughout the rest of the season before getting knocked out in the first round of the playoffs by the Steven Stamkos-led Sarnia Sting.
The turnaround continued the following season, however, as the Spitfires set a franchise-best record of 57-10-0-1 on their way to winning their first OHL title in more than two decades.
At that year’s Memorial Cup, though, things were looking dim for the Spitfires as they dropped their first games, and were on the verge of being eliminated from the entire tournament as they played the Kelowna Rockets in the final round-robin contest.
It was then that the Spitfires showed why they were one of top teams in the country as they defeated the Rockets to get into a tie-breaker, where they would defeat the host Rimouski Oceanic.
From there, the “Spits” won the semi-final over the Drummondville Voltigeurs in overtime by a 3-2 score before earning a 4-1 victory over the Rockets in the final to win their first national championship.
A year later, following another 50-win season, the Spitfires found themselves with their backs up against the wall yet again as they trailed the Kitchener Rangers 3-0 in their best-of-seven Western Conference final.
Yet again, the Spitfires refused to die as they turned around the three-game deficit to clinch a berth in the OHL final, where they swept aside the Barrie Colts before going undefeated in the Memorial Cup to claim back-to-back national crowns.
Come this season, many weren’t expecting a whole lot from the Spitfires, with their head coach (Boughner) joining the Columbus Blue Jackets’ coaching staff and Hall being selected first overall by the Edmonton OIlers in the NHL draft.
But with Ellis now leading the charge, the Spitfires finished up the regular season with the fourth-best record in the Western Conference, and then pushed aside both the Erie Otters and the Saginaw Spirit in the playoffs before falling to the top-seeded Attack.
Besides Hall and Ellis, the names on this team over the past few seasons are a “who’s who” of top prospects, with Josh Bailey (N.Y. Islanders), Andrei Loktionov (L.A. Kings), Cam Flower (Anaheim Ducks), Phillipp Grubauer (Washington Capitals), Zack Kassian (Buffalo Sabres), Jack Campbell (Dallas Stars), and Tom Kuhnhackl (Pittsburgh Penguins) among those who have plied their trade in Windsor.
And that’s not even including the players the Spitfires have had in their system who they traded away, such as Matt Hackett (Minnesota Wild), Michal Neuvirth (Washington Capitals), Garrett Wilson (Florida Panthers), Jesse Blacker (Toronto Maple Leafs), and Richard Panik (Tampa Bay Lightning).
It’s hard to say exactly where the Spitfires will be heading into next season, with players such as Ellis and Kassian starting their pro careers, and no one quite knowing yet what will happen with Kuhnhackl and Campbell in regards to their development status.
However, with forwards Alexander Khokhalchev and Taylor Carnevale, along with highly-touted blueliner Nick Ebert, all expected to return, the Spitfires shouldn’t suffer a massive plummet that many other top teams have suffered over the years.
So where will this recent run of success for the Spitfires rank among junior hockey’s elite? Well, the title of the best single-season OHL team ever is highly doubtful to be taken by Windsor given the amazing 2004/05 London Knights probably hold claim to to that.
As for a dynasty, well, there are a number of franchises that could take that honour, such as back in my hometown, where the Soo Greyhounds’ teams that made it to three-straight Memorial Cup tournaments in the early 1990s still are held in very high regard.
Plus, you also have the Kamloops Blazers from that same timeframe, who won three Memorial Cups in four years, and other teams such as the the Cornwall Royals and the Medicine Hat Tigers in the 1980s and the New Westminster Bruins and the Peterborough Petes of the ’70s.
As always, though, the passing of time will tend to make these accomplishments stand out even more. So it’s safe to say this run by the Spitfires will be remembered fondly by many hockey followers.

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