It’s been a long 17 months, but the Windsor Spitfires are just weeks away from the opening of the 2021-22 season. With the 2021 OHL Draft, Under-18 Draft, and the CHL Import Draft out of the way, a new coaching staff is in place, and a firm schedule announced, the season is at our fingertips. The question becomes – who’s going to lead this younger roster?
Getting to this point has been nothing short of a monumental challenge, not only for the Spitfires but the OHL and the world as a whole. When we last sat at the WFCU Centre on that March 8, 2020 afternoon, we knew Covid was out there, but the extent wasn’t even a consideration. It was easy to take the players, the sights, and the sounds for granted. Fast forward to now, and the organization looks vastly different, from the players to the staff. The roster is younger and will require a bit of finesse to lead them into the post-pandemic era.
Who should take control? Let’s examine that.
Pre-COVID Leaders Graduate
When the Spitfires hopped off the ice following a disappointing 3-2 loss to the Kitchener Rangers on that March afternoon, their leadership group was seasoned and knew how to prepare for bigger things ahead.
Luke Boka was in his second season as captain and third as part of the leadership group. Alternates Chris Playfair and Cole Purboo had worn the “A” for multiple seasons, while defenceman Connor Corcoran was a “rookie” with that group but had shown leadership qualities since he came into the league. It was a solid, well-respected group that had stability.
Unfortunately, when you’re around that long in the OHL, it means graduation isn’t far away. Boka and Purboo graduated as soon as COVID-19 hit; that was their final season, and there was nothing that could be done. While Playfair was 50/50 for returning for one final season (the club could only carry three 20-year-olds in 2020-21), he and Corcoran officially graduated once the league canceled the 2020-21 season. Just like that, the leadership group had dissolved.
New Era, New Captain
Coming into 2021-22, the Spitfires have three 20-year-olds locked and loaded on the roster — defencemen Grayson Ladd and Louka Henault, along with forward Daniel D’Amico. None of them have been a part of the leadership group so far, but they’ve all had at least three seasons on the team. That factor could help in determining who gets the captain’s “C.”
The club also has 19-year-old forwards Will Cuylle (New York Rangers) and Jean-Luc Foudy (Colorado Avalanche), who will likely graduate after this season. They were top-10 OHL picks in 2018 but, after promising rookie campaigns, hit a snag in 2019-20. Cuylle was the only player to improve his production — by a single point. Each will be on a redemption tour, and leading the organization in all areas would be welcomed.
Unfortunately, with the same leadership team for multiple seasons prior to COVID, there’s no clear-cut favourite to get the “C.” It could be one of the veterans… or even a surprise.
Youth Need to Focus in New Era
While the Spitfires will have talented veterans to lead them into the post-COVID era, they’re going to need the youth to take the reigns beyond 2021-22. Giving one of these talents an “A” this season would boost confidence and show the team is in good hands once the veterans graduate.
The sixth overall pick in the 2020 OHL Draft, Johnston has steadily improved in every area of the game. He made Team Canada’s Under-18 roster this Spring, forcing people to take notice, and earned a first-round pick from the Dallas Stars in July’s draft. While he just turned 18, he’ll be a leader on the ice, and giving him an “A” isn’t out of the question.
A new face to the Spitfires, the 19-year-old Renwick was acquired from the Hamilton Bulldogs in a June 2020 trade. His two-way play could be just what the team needs after plenty of defensive graduation. While he’s only played 77 OHL games, he has a golden opportunity to bring a different perspective to the room, including new leadership.
The club’s second-round pick in 2019, Zito showed he’s going to be special. He scored 13 points in 46 games, but his 200-foot approach and “lead-by-example” mentality on the ice reminded some of former Spitfires’ great Adam Henrique. The Detroit Red Wings’ 2021 prospect has all the tools to learn the leadership ropes, and giving him an “A” would show a lot.
The Spitfires have often relied on veterans to lead the way. In this post-pandemic era, the veterans are still present, but the youth need to have some responsibility. Giving one (or more) a spot on the leadership team would boost confidence and give the club stability beyond this season.
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.