Windsor Spitfires Go Finnish at 2019 CHL Import Draft

Windsor Spitfires’ general manager Warren Rychel has been a rather busy guy in June. He added another piece to his puzzle on Thursday, snagging a rugged prize during the CHL Import Draft.

With multiple player additions, nobody can say Rychel has been sitting back and letting the league pass him by this month. Since the season ended in April, it’s been anything but a relaxing day at an Essex County beach for the three-time Memorial Cup architect.

The summer break is right around the corner, though, and Rychel is hoping to enter it on a high note.

Rose City Requests Rafkin

Thursday morning, the CHL held its annual Import Draft. Each team is allowed to have two Import players. Last year, the Spitfires drafted goaltender Kari Piiroinen out of Helsinki, Finland. This gave them room to make one selection this time – the 14th overall pick.

Rychel went back to Finland and selected 17-year-old defenceman Ruben Rafkin, who played with the Tri-City Storm of the USHL (Kearney, Nebraska) in 2018-19. Rafkin is originally from Turku, Finland.

The 6-feet, 185-pound defenceman played 38 games with the Storm with 10 points and 90 penalty minutes. He was also on Team Finland during the 2018 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.

Rychel told AM800 that Rafkin is a tough competitor who is already adjusted to North American hockey and will fit in well.

“This kid caught our eye with his physical play and he played at the World Under 17’s,” Rychel said.

“He’s the kind of guy that is not fun to play against. He’s going to clear the net, he’s going to hit, and guys in the league are going to be aware when he’s on the ice.”

While some Import players might choose to stay home, Rafkin seems eager to join the Spitfires. He told AM800 that he’s the type you want on your team, but hate playing against.

“Pretty skilled, fast, I play really hard, kind of annoying to play against,” says Rafkin.

“Usually, a lot of guys hate me when they play on the other team, but when I’m on their team, they like me, so I’m a good teammate.”

Rafkin is no stranger to Windsor. He’s friends with Piiroinen and likes what he sees in the city and Spitfires program.

Kari Piiroinen Windsor Spitfires
Goaltender Kari Piiroinen enters his second season with the Windsor Spitfires. (Dave Jewell/THW)

Originally, Rafkin looked at the college route, but the OHL was tempting. This sealed the deal.

Rychel’s Import Resume

The Import Draft is a gamble, plain and simple. Teams often rely on connections and hope for the best.

Rychel has had some hits-and-misses over his 12-year tenure. While some players – such as Swedish forward Jacob de la Rose and Russian forward Nikita Yazkov – didn’t pan out, some of them have done exceptionally well.

Defenceman Mikhail Sergachev, forward Tom Kuhnhackl, and forward Alexander Khokhlachev all played multiple seasons for the Spitfires. They produced, they became fan favourites, and they made it to the NHL.

Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa Bay Lightning
Mikhail Sergachev of the Tampa Bay Lightning. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

That’s what the Spitfires are hoping for with Piiroinen and Rafkin.

Piiroinen had an up-and-down 2018-19 season but showed plenty of promise. He turns 18 on July 1 so there’s plenty of room to grow. The Spitfires passed on their second pick, meaning the 2019-20 crease likely belongs to the Finnish veteran.

Rafkin will fit in with a young defence that’s eager to take that next step. Spitfires’ fans love their rough-and-tumble hockey so it has the potential to be a perfect match.

Piiroinen and Rafkin knowing each other is a significant benefit to both players. It’s a familiarity that they can lean on.

Rychel also made one last move prior to Friday morning’s trade freeze, which lasts until early August. He traded the rights to 17-year-old forward Christian Stevens to the Niagara IceDogs. In return, the Spitfires get a conditional 15th-round pick in 2023. It becomes a sixth-round pick in 2022 if Stevens plays one game for the IceDogs.

Stevens plays for the Whitby Fury Jr. A and is committed to the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

It’s been a very busy month for Rychel and his roster is taking shape. Now, he can breathe a bit and enjoy the summer months.