A year ago, the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and fans didn’t know when the next steps would come. Now, the league enters a busy two months before the 2022 Playoffs, and the Windsor Spitfires are taking nothing for granted. From honouring a former captain to more supporters, the return of a familiar name and superheroes, the WFCU Centre is a busy place!
Coming into the season, the Spitfires had high expectations despite losing key talent during the lockdown. They’ve come together, grown as a unit, and put themselves in a solid position to make noise in the Western Conference. However, with such a tight race at the top, the slightest slip could have dire consequences when it matters most. Last weekend, they continued their push for a division title while not only honouring a former captain but welcoming back a few thousand of their closest friends, as well.
Here’s a look.
Spitfires Honour Fallen Captain
Feb. 18, 2008, changed the Spitfires’ organization and the City of Windsor forever.
It was Family Day, and the team was getting ready for an event at the old Windsor Arena. Captain Mickey Renaud, 19, was at home with a few teammates when he suddenly collapsed. He was rushed to hospital but, despite all efforts, tragically passed away. It was later determined that the Calgary Flames’ prospect had undetected Hypertrophic Cardiopathy, which thickens the heart muscles and creates a tougher blood flow.
Since then, the organization has honoured their “captain forever” by retiring his number 18, naming a street outside the WFCU Centre “Mickey Renaud Way,” moving his locker (as it was on that tragic day) to the WFCU Centre Concourse, and much more.
While many of the tributes were done by former management, including former owner Bob Boughner and general manager Warren Rychel, the current management team and staff have made sure to pass on the knowledge to new players. Head coach Marc Savard said he walks by the concourse tribute regularly.
“I run around the concourse and the Mickey Renaud tribute. It’s touching,” he said on Friday. “…From what I hear, he was a fantastic human being, and it makes it even more difficult.”
While it’s been 14-years since the tragedy, the Spitfires and their fans continue to remember (and talk about) Renaud on a regular basis. He embodied everything a Spitfire should be – a hard-working, talented, dedicated player and person and the epitome of leadership. Each season, the Spitfires play on Feb. 18, regardless of the day. This season, the Flint Firebirds came to town.
Spitfires’ Five-Point Weekend
The weekend plan seemed simple: a home-and-home series with the Firebirds before finishing at home on Monday against the Saginaw Spirit. Fortunately, it worked out… mostly. Friday night, the Spitfires paid tribute to Renaud with a beautiful pre-game ceremony that involved the players coming out to give flowers to their billets. It was really well done. However, when it was finished, the game faces came on.
It was exactly what you’d expect from two contenders: a physical, playoff-like game. The Spitfires grabbed a 3-1 lead only to see the Firebirds score three unanswered late in the third. Fortunately, Pasquale Zito (Detroit Red Wings) tied it with 30 seconds left before veteran defenceman Michael Renwick sent the fans home happy in the extra frame. It was a 5-4 Spitfires final, the perfect way to end a special night.
Just 24 hours later, the teams met in Michigan and, again, it was a heavyweight tilt. They went back and forth for the entire 60 minutes. When two teams are this closely matched, what else can you expect besides a nine-round shootout? Unfortunately, the home side was better on this night as Samuel Assinewai beat goaltender Mathias Onuska to win it 3-2.
Savard’s club had no time to dwell, though, as the last-place Saginaw Spirit came to town for Family Day. The players could have brushed it off but, instead, took full advantage. They peppered goaltender Tristan Lennox, jumping out to a commanding 6-1 lead after 40 minutes. Without him, this could have been double digits. However, it wasn’t all easy. Late in the game, Spitfires’ captain Will Cuylle took a five-minute major for boarding, and the visitors scored a pair to make it a 6-3 final.
Losing Cuylle (and the shootout) is tough, but earning five-of-six points on the weekend is appreciated.
WFCU Centre Welcomes More Fans
The Spitfires needed those points, but this weekend brought something else that may be even more valuable. In late December, with COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations on the rise, the Province of Ontario imposed more pandemic restrictions, including no fans at sports events for a month. At the end of January, it started to ease a bit, and the OHL was allowed 500 fans for a game. The teams appreciated it, but everyone wanted more.
Ontario finally lifted more restrictions last week, including allowing half capacity at larger venues. This meant the Spitfires could have about 3,300 fans for their games. It was finally game time!
Both Friday night and Monday afternoon were electric. Fans yelled from the moment the doors opened and didn’t let up. The ticket count for both games was 3,283, which is virtually a sell-out in these conditions. They screamed, they cheered on their Spitfires, and they went home happy.
Savard said the team needed this and fed off their energy. “It was fantastic,” he said after Friday’s game. “I told (Jerrod Smith) and (Andy Delmore) throughout the game on the bench that it just felt nice. The energy in the building, the cheers, the boos … It was really nice to have everyone back … They felt like that sixth man, and it felt good to have them behind us tonight.”
Ontario has said that all remaining capacity restrictions should be lifted in early March. If this weekend was any indication, the rest of the season is going to be a madhouse on McHugh Ave!
Michael Leighton Returns to Spitfires
This weekend saw a fantastic tribute to Renaud, five points, and an electric WFCU Centre. What more could we want? How about the return of an old favourite? On Wednesday afternoon, the Spitfires made a splash, naming former star goaltender Michael Leighton as their new goaltending coach.
The club’s third-round pick in 1998 played 124 games from 1998-2001, earning a 3.30 goals-against average and .903-save percentage. After being drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in 1999, he went on to play 111 games with various NHL teams before settling into the American Hockey League (AHL) in 2016-17. He also spent one season (2013-14) with Donbass Donetsk (KHL) in Druzhkivika, Ukraine. He officially retired on Oct. 7, 2019.
Leighton said coming to the Spitfires is a great start to his coaching career: “It is very exciting. I have always wanted to get into coaching since retiring. What better way to do it (than) with the Spitfires?”
Leighton is one of the best goaltenders in team history. Having Xavier Medina, Mathias Onuska, and Kyle Downey learning from him can only benefit the club now and in the future.
Superheroes and Cuylle Suspension
As February comes to an end this weekend, the schedule only gets tougher with another three games. Thursday night, the Spitfires welcome the Kitchener Rangers. While the visitors are in a three-way tie for the final playoff spot, they’re 4-1 against the home side, outscoring them 20-12. On Friday, they head up the 401 for another round with the Guelph Storm, who are breathing down their necks. Just five points separate the clubs, and the Storm have lost all three meetings so far.
Finally, the club wraps up the weekend at home on Sunday against the Sarnia Sting. While the visitors join the Rangers in that battle for the final playoff spot, they gave the Spitfires fits in their last meeting, with a surprising 6-2 win. It’s the third game of the weekend, but anything less than two points will be a disappointment.
Sunday is also Superhero Day at the WFCU Centre. Fans are encouraged to wear their favourite superhero costume for the annual event. The event originally started in 2017 when the Spitfires joined the “Fight like Mason” Foundation, created by Chantelle Bacon and Iain Macri, whose son Mason sadly passed away from cancer in 2017 at age two. He was a true superhero in his courageous fight.
Savard will have to do a bit of line shuffling as Cuylle was handed a three-game suspension for the hit against the Spirit. He’s eligible to return on Mar. 4 when the club faces the London Knights. A bit of line shuffling isn’t a bad thing, though. With all four lines producing, it’s an opportunity to give some youngsters a chance to show what they have.
Game time on Thursday is 7:30 p.m. while Sunday is a 4:05 PM puck drop.
A nearly life-long resident of Windsor, ON, I graduated from St. Clair College (Journalism) and University of Windsor (Communications) and have attended Windsor Spitfires’ (and OHL) games for 30-years. My areas include multimedia journalism and photography.