10 Years Ago: The Windsor Spitfires Make History in Rimouski

As the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies celebrate their 2019 Memorial Cup championship, the first in the franchise’s history, it brings back memories of 10 years ago and the Windsor Spitfires making some history of their own.

With a star-studded lineup that included future NHLers Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique, and Ryan Ellis, they battled adversity, shocked the nation, and created an incredible buzz throughout Windsor.

Let’s take a look back at the dramatic Memorial Cup experience that nobody from Windsor will ever forget.

The Highs & Lows

The 2008-09 season was as good as the Spitfires could have asked for. Following a surprising 2008 first-round elimination by the Sarnia Sting, the Spitfires racked up a 57-10-0-1 record, ploughing through the competition.

That was followed by a 16-4 playoff record, including a dramatic Western Conference Final series against the London Knights where all five games went to overtime.

After beating the Brampton Battalion in five games for the OHL championship, it was clear that few teams were going to touch this tight-knit group. With Hall, Henrique, Ellis, and a host of other future pros, it was a junior hockey fan’s dream team.

Adam Henrique
Adam Henrique (scoring) was instrumental in the Windsor Spitfires’ 2009 Memorial Cup run. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

They went into Rimouski as a confident bunch, but when you’re playing teams you haven’t seen before, it’s not always easy.

The Drummondville Voltigeurs, the QMJHL champs, and the Rimouski Oceanic, the host team who won 44 games of their own, had other ideas.

Voltigeurs goaltender Marco Cousineau stood on head in the opener, giving his club the 3-2 win in overtime. The second game was just as disappointing for the Spitfires, as the host Oceanics squeezed out a 5-4 win.

After losing two straight just once all season, this was unfamiliar territory to the Spitfires. They were down 0-2 and preparing to face the WHL champion Kelowna Rockets. A loss there and it was time to head home. A win, though, and they might get that breath they needed. No team in this tournament had ever come back from being down 0-2 to win it, though.

Spitfires Never Quit

When your back is against the wall, there’s only one acceptable outcome – you fight for your life.

In their first two games, the Rockets put 10 goals past their opponents. They were on an offensive tear and it’d take everything the Spitfires had to silence them.

The Rockets opened the scoring midway through the second period, but a late second-period goal from Hall tied it up for the Spitfires. They used that momentum in the third period to shut down the Rockets’ offence.

New Jersey Devils Taylor Hall
Taylor Hall became a household name in Windsor. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Ellis had the lone goal for the Spitfires in the third, and the team held the Rockets to just four shots as the Spitfires took the hard-fought 2-1 win.

The win, combined with the Oceanics losing their final game, created the tiebreaker game. This was a game that grandchildren will hear about for years to come.

The Dale Mitchell Effect

After the earlier loss to the Oceanic, you couldn’t blame Spitfires fans if they were a bit nervous. Every game now was do-or-die and nobody wanted to go home.

The start of the game didn’t help any nerves, either. The Oceanic scored three straight late in the first and into the second period, taking a 4-2 lead after 40 minutes.

Enter Dale Mitchell.

The Spitfires acquired the diminutive sniper in the offseason from the Oshawa Generals and he came as advertised. He saved his best work for this game, though.

Mitchell scored four minutes into the third period to cut the lead to 4-3. Two minutes later, on the power play, Mitchell notched his second of the game to tie it up at four. Just 94 seconds later, he completed the natural hat trick, again on the power play, to give the Spitfires a 5-4 lead. Could the comeback actually be done?

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The hat trick took the wind out of the Oceanic sails as they mustered just four shots on net in the period. Greg Nemisz tapped in his first of the tournament with one second left on the clock to cap off the Spitfires’ improbable 6-4 win.

It set up the Spitfires’ revenge showdown with the Voltigeurs in the semi-finals. That nearly became a repeat performance, too.

Similar to their first meeting, Cousineau faced 47 shots through regulation and overtime, but only allowed three goals. Unfortunately for him, it was the third goal that did him in. Henrique fired home the winner during an overtime crease scramble to give the Spitfires a 3-2 win and punch their ticket to the final.

Andrew Engelage, while not as busy for the Spitfires, still made the 19 saves he needed to get his team into the main event.

Spitfires Rocket into History Books

It all came down to one game. One team would hoist the Mastercard Memorial Cup. The other would head home empty-handed.

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After losing to the Spitfires in the round robin, the Rockets faced some criticism; why did they give the Spitfires any life? They had a chance to send them back to Windsor with three-straight losses, but instead they gave them that one breath that was needed.

There was no way the Spitfires were letting this chance get away, either. Not if Henrique or Mitchell had a say.

The two snipers scored early in the first period, while defenceman Rob Kwiet added a third before the 10-minute mark, to put the Spitfires up 3-0. Rockets goaltender Mark Guggenburger was chased and failed to record a save over 7:11 of play.

While the Rockets scored an early second period power-play goal, Ellis added his third of the tournament before the period ended to give the Spitfires a 4-1 lead after 40.

Ryan Ellis
Ryan Ellis may go down as the best defenceman in Windsor Spitfires’ history. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

Nerves were on high alert as the several hundred Spitfires’ fans who made the trek to the St. Lawrence shores hoped the clock would tick faster. The Spitfires made life miserable for the Rockets as the teams combined for just 12 shots in the third period.

There was nothing the Rockets could do. Sticks and gloves went flying as the horn sounded. The drought was over – a 4-1 win gave the Spitfires their first Memorial Cup championship!

Partying in the Rose City

The City of Windsor was hit by hard times in 2008-09. It relies heavily on the auto industry and, with spirits and finances getting low, fans jumped on the Spitfires bandwagon for glimmers of entertainment. The WFCU Centre was packed on a regular basis and fans wore Spitfires merchandise around town.

WFCU Centre Windsor
The WFCU Centre in Windsor in 2017. (Dave Jewell/THW)

The win was special. Not just for the players, but for the city. While the Spitfires made the 1988 Memorial Cup, they lost in the finalto the Medicine Hat Tigers. It was their only loss in the playoffs. Getting their first Memorial Cup win meant the city and its fans weren’t holding back from celebrating.

Fans lined up at the airport upon the team’s arrival while cars and flags littered downtown in a sea of red, blue, and white. It was the party 21 years in the making.

Creating a Memorial Cup-worthy franchise is anything but easy. Spitfires general manager Warren Rychel did it, though. After this win, he won it again in 2010 and 2017.

2017 Memorial Cup Erie Otters Windsor Spitfires
Windsor Spitfires’ general manager Warren Rychel, hoisting the 2017 Memorial Cup, was the architect behind the 2009 Memorial Cup. (Photo by Aaron Bell/CHL Images)

The 2008-09 team was special, though. They were a cohesive group that played for each other. Just one year after captain Mickey Renaud passed away, nothing was going to stop this team from reaching the pinnacle of junior hockey.

It was a historic win for the city, the team, and its fans. After everything that happened, it’s a treasured memory that will forever live on in the hearts of Rose City residents.