The last week in May has traditionally been when Canada’s junior hockey’s elite come together to battle it out for the prized Memorial Cup. With COVID-19 still having a grip on us (though lessening), the 2021 edition was canceled in April. However, that allows us to look back at four years ago, where the Windsor Spitfires got caught up in history and still managed to take the nation by storm.
Everything about the Memorial Cup is first-class; the crowds, the hockey, the atmosphere, and the organizations, just to name a few things. It’s an event that every junior hockey fan should experience at least once in their life. To bring it to your city is nothing short of an honor and it was the Spitfires’ goal for several years. In 2016, then-club management – general manager Warren Rychel, president Bob Boughner, co-owners Cypher Systems Group, and head coach Rocky Thompson – did everything in their power to make it happen for the City of Windsor. It became a story that fans still talk about to this day.
Let’s take a look back at their journey.
Building the Anticipation
After winning the Memorial Cup in 2009 and primed to win again in 2010, the Spitfires bid to host the tournament in 2011 when it was the OHL’s turn. It was a nearly perfect set-up; one title under their belt, another likely (which they won), and a chance at finishing the three-peat at home. What could be better?
Unfortunately, the CHL went another route, awarding the tournament to the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors. Despite a great returning roster in 2010-11, the Spitfires lost in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final to the Owen Sound Attack. Hopes of a three-peat were dashed.
The loss, combined with the failed bid, left a sour taste with the Spitfires. However, never count out Rychel and his group. When they wanted something, they went for it. The club didn’t have the roster to compete in 2014, but building for 2017 was possible.
The Spitfires started the process in early 2016 in partnership with the City of Windsor. After a few months of bidding and plenty of anxiety, the CHL made it official – the event was coming to Windsor!
Rychel, famous for bold moves, was certainly going all-in. He spent the next several months making splash after splash, bringing in veterans like Julius Nattinen, Jeremiah Addison, Sean Day, and Jeremy Bracco. The new acquisitions added to an already star-studded lineup that included defenceman Mikhail Sergachev, forward Logan Brown, and Amherstburg-native goaltender Michael DiPietro. Any picks that were shipped out would be worried about down the road.
With Thompson in his second season as coach, the team played hard-nosed hockey, finishing with 90 points. However, the Western Conference was as tough as it’s ever been (four teams with at least 99 points) and they finished in the fifth seed. That’s where it got ugly.
Game 7 Letdown
The fifth seed meant the club would face their rivals from down the 401 – the London Knights. This rivalry goes back decades and was primed to be a classic.
The playoff-experienced Knights won 25-of-34 at home and were expected to take control starting in Game 1. However, Thompson wouldn’t let the Spitfires roll over. While the home side started well, the visitors pushed back, forced overtime, and then silenced the fans with the overtime winner.
That didn’t go over well with the Knights, who charged back, taking Game 2 with ease. This series was just warming up.
The teams headed back to the WFCU Centre in Windsor for Games 3 and 4 and Thompson’s club returned to their normal selves. Despite two very close games, they took what seemed like a commanding 3-1 series lead. While the upset was possible, did anyone really think the Knights were out of it?
The Knights squeaked out a home-ice win in Game 5 and used that momentum to shock the Spitfires’ faithful in Game 6. Suddenly, the series went from 3-1 Spitfires to needing a Game 7. What just happened?
During Game 7 at the Bud Gardens, the Knights took a two-goal lead into the third period. However, Thompson’s club never quit. They fought back, tying it up with 10 minutes remaining. That’s when the penalty happened – a minor to Nattinen gave the Knights a late powerplay. They promptly capitalized, taking a 3-2 lead, deflating the Spitfires, and conquering the series.
The comeback was complete and the Spitfires were left wondering what to do next. They were built for the long playoff run, but now everything had changed. Rychel, Thompson, and the players had plenty to prove as going into the event through the “backdoor” wasn’t their plan.
Spitfires Conquer CHL
While the Knights advanced to the second round, the Spitfires regrouped at the WFCU Centre to plan their next steps. They had just over 40-days until the tournament began and wanted to take full advantage.
Thompson, Rychel, and the rest of the staff put together a 44-day, three-phase program designed to condition and reset the roster. An already tight club became even closer. While they knew they were underdogs, facing three outstanding league champions, they were confident with anything thrown at them.
Despite nerves and questions, they took care of all three league champions, making their mark on the event. They beat the QMJHL-champion Saint John Sea Dogs 3-2 in the opener, the WHL-champion Seattle Thunderbirds 7-1, and finally the OHL-champion Erie Otters 4-2 in the round-robin final. The final win gave the Spitfires the automatic berth into the tournament final, where they eventually faced the Otters (who defeated the Sea Dogs in the semis).
The day was May 28, a highly-anticipated Sunday evening. It had everything you could want – over 6,500 crazed fans, two elite teams, and junior hockey supremacy on the line. It went down to the wire, which was appropriate.
While the Spitfires opened the scoring, the teams went toe-to-toe throughout the 60-minutes. Fortunately for the home team, their history-making marker came in the third period. Veteran Aaron Luchuk took a feed in the slot from Bracco and put it glove side on Otters’ goaltender Troy Timpano for the 4-3 lead.
The Otters tried to counter but were met by DiPietro until the final buzzer sounded. The Spitfires’ gloves went flying as they celebrated a 4-3 win and their third Mastercard Memorial Cup.
Worth the Wait
Following the loss to the Attack in 2011, the Spitfires had trouble making any noise in the post-season. They were eliminated in the first round on three occasions and failed even to make the playoffs twice. Frustration grew and the fans and the City of Windsor needed something to celebrate with the club.
While beating the Knights and making their way to the OHL Championship would have been ideal, the team put on a show in the tournament and showed what they could truly do. From the tournament announcement to the trades, the season hype to the trophy hoist, it was a year their fans and the City of Windsor will never forget.
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I’m a resident of Windsor, ON and a graduate of St Clair College Journalism and New Media program as well as the University of Windsor Communication, Media, and Film program. I’ve been a junior hockey fan (specifically the Windsor Spitfires) for 30-years and have written about/photographed junior hockey since about 2005.