It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year and a half since the Windsor Spitfires last stepped on the ice as a team. The wait has been frustrating but, after various drafts and signing a new coach, the team is ready to go. On Tuesday, they made a big announcement — the 2021-22 training camp is here! However, there’s a large twist to the camp, along with a few intriguing stories.
After a year of limbo for the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), life is slowly getting back to normal. The 2020-21 season was officially cancelled in March, allowing everyone to focus on this season. That meant plenty of preparation, including the 2021 OHL Draft, Under-18 Draft, CHL Import Draft, and a new coach for the Spitfires. It also means training camp is days away and it’ll be unlike anything we’ve seen in the past. Live hockey is live hockey, though, right?
Let’s dig into the schedule and some stories to watch as camp gets underway.
Training Camp Schedule
As has been the case for many years, the Spitfires will hold their annual training camp just before Labour Day. COVID-19 has changed things, though, and camp is going to look very different.
On Tuesday afternoon, the club released their 2021-22 Training Camp schedule and information. There’s one big piece that needs to be said first:
- This season’s training camp is NOT open to the general public.
It’s unfortunate and may be disappointing to many, but with COVID-19 cases slowly rising, many OHL teams are taking the same approach to ensure everyone’s safety.
Here are the details of the camp:
The Spitfires will open camp on Thursday, Sept. 2 as players report to the WFCU Centre for off-ice activities, including weigh-ins, fitness testing, orientation sessions, and more.
On Friday, the players will be divided into three teams — Blue, White, and Red. They will participate in practices and scrimmages on Friday (morning/evening) and Saturday (morning). After the Saturday scrimmage, the Blue-White game rosters will be announced with puck drop set for 7:15 p.m. Saturday evening. While camp is not open to the general public, the team will have a free live stream of the Blue-White game. The link to that will be posted on the Spitfires’ website on Thursday.
5 Stories to Watch at Camp
With the camp beginning, there are numerous stories that could unfold. Let’s take a look at five of them (in no order of importance).
5. Welcome to the Savard Era
A lot has changed in a very short time behind the Spitfires’ bench. Since the pandemic started, all indications were that then-head coach Trevor Letowski would resume his duties. However, that all changed when he was suddenly hired to be the assistant coach of the Montreal Canadiens.
Spitfires’ general manager (GM) Bill Bowler immediately started the search for a new bench boss. After a month, the organization found their guy — former OHL/NHL great Marc Savard. He was introduced on Aug. 24 and comes to the league after a season as the assistant coach for the St. Louis Blues.
Savard brings a fresh, young perspective and could provide a jolt to the Spitfires’ offence. He’s eager to not only teach young prospects but to develop his own craft. All eyes will be on him as he navigates new waters.
4. Veterans Add Responsibilities
When the pandemic started, then-19-year-olds Daniel D’Amico, Grayson Ladd, and Louka Henault were veterans, but not at the top of the seniority list. They looked up to guys like Luke Boka, Cole Purboo, Connor Corcoran, and Curtis Douglas, who have since graduated. Now, the younger trio finds themselves in new territory — leaders on a new-era roster.
Over the last 18 months, 11 players have either graduated or signed elsewhere. That’s nearly half of the roster. The players that once learned about the leadership roles will be thrown into the fire, hoping to lead the roster while passing on their knowledge to the next class. It’s not an easy chore by any stretch.
D’Amico has always been a sparkplug, but after 50 points in 2019-20, his offence has suddenly become relied upon. Ladd and Henault play simple yet effective defence. They were never counted on to be leaders until now. With two offensive defencemen (Corcoran and Ruben Rafkin) out of the picture, the pair will need to find that extra gear.
These three have huge tasks ahead of them. Can they level up?
3. Redemption of Foudy and Cuylle
Expectations are higher when you’re a top-10 pick. In 2018, the Spitfires selected playmaker Jean-Luc Foudy with the tenth pick, followed by then-GM Warren Rychel sending several picks to the Peterborough Petes for third-overall pick Will Cuylle. It seemed like a perfect duo, at least to start.
Both players enjoyed stellar rookie seasons; Foudy put up 49 points in 63 games while Cuylle managed 41 points in 63 games. They were ready to break out in 2019-20. It didn’t happen, though. While Cuylle improved by one point, Foudy dropped by six points (in four fewer games) and it was clear that opponents had figured out their styles.
At times, they seemed frustrated on the ice. Whether it was injuries, a lack of confidence, or something completely different, they weren’t their normal selves.
Both players were chosen at the 2020 NHL Draft and, with a new coach in place, this is a golden chance for the two to find redemption. Everyone involved needs it. Having two high picks dominate the WFCU Centre ice would be a huge bonus for the Spitfires in a season with so many questions.
2. Crease Collision
This will be fun to watch unfold. Before the pandemic, then-rookie goaltender Xavier Medina won the starters’ job from Finnish import Kari Piiroinen. The young Finn was given a chance to succeed, but inconsistencies allowed Medina to slip past him on the depth chart. When the season ended, Piiroinen left the Spitfires and signed back home in Finland (where he’s done very well). Coming into this season’s camp, Medina should be the starter, but it’s not a guarantee.
At the 2020 OHL Draft, the club took highly-touted prospect Kyle Downey out of Toronto in the second round. He’s good enough to push Medina for the starter’s role very soon. Then the team added 6-foot-4, 170-pound Tyler Bouck from the 2020 U18 Draft; he’s not giving up anything. We can’t count out 19-year-old Matt Tovell, either. The former U18 pick saw playing time in 2019-20 when Piiroinen was with Team Finland at the World Junior Championship.
Realistically, Medina should keep the starter’s role while the other three battle for that coveted backup spot (or even third string). The spot feels like it’s Downey’s to lose (given his high ceiling), but it’s up in the air and that makes for a great battle.
1. Young Guns Eager to Prove Value
Being a youngster in the OHL is tough at the best of times. Expectations are high and the NHL is constantly watching. Add in a pandemic and serious lack of playing/development time, and the whole situation can be tough to watch unfold.
This is the life for three draft classes coming into camp. Sophomores like Wyatt Johnston and Pasquale Zito (2019 Draft) to rookies Ryan Abraham, Nicholas De Angelis, and Downey (2020), plus 16-year-olds Ethan Miedema, Bronson Ride, and Christopher O’Flaherty (2021); they’re all looking to show they’ve developed properly despite all the pandemic has thrown at them. It’s not an easy situation.
Johnston and Zito have benefitted from playing with the Spitfires in 2019-20. However, both need to show they’ve taken that next step in their development and can be regular contributors.
The rest of the players come into their first camps eager to show that not only were they worthy of being picked, but that they’ve developed since their drafts. It’s not going to be easy, but with the Spitfires looking at the future, the steady progression of the youth is going to be key at camp.
While the official start to fall isn’t for a few weeks, the start of training camp has always felt like the unofficial end to summer. With several stories unfolding, it’s going to be an entertaining month. We’ve gone over 500 days without live Spitfires’ hockey and it’s not something we want to do again. As we say goodbye to summer, let’s not take the new season for granted and do everything we can to stay on the road to recovery.
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.