Story by Karen Paton-Evans / Photography by Aaron Bell/CHL Images
Windsor Spitfires head coach Rocky Thompson, deep into his second season with the team, knew he had a hardworking bunch of guys who played with skill, speed and heart. They had the makings of champions.
Yet the Junior Ontario Hockey League team struggled throughout the 2016-2017 season.
The Spits had been away from home ice for an unprecedented 40 days while a temporary swimming pool was built over their rink for the FINA World Swimming Championships at the WFCU Centre held in December. At the time, goalie Michael DiPietro observed, “When you’re on the road that much, you face adversity every night, obviously because the home team gets the advantage on you. There are small hills that we as a team have had to overcome throughout these 40 days. It’s been hard, particularly the long bus rides. But I think we’ve bonded more as a team.”
Injuries and suspensions also took their toll. With the nightly roster often down by one to three players, the season was a challenge for the players and staff. In the first round of OHL playoffs against the London Knights, the Spitfires were eliminated.
They shook off the loss and focused on a greater goal: Winning the Canadian Hockey League championship and scoring the 99th Mastercard Memorial Cup.
If the Spits could do this, they would become the first team to win three Memorial Cups in a decade since the Kamloops Blazers’ hat trick in the 1990’s.
Even though Windsor’s team didn’t actually win a spot to compete, as the tournament’s host, the Spits were automatically eligible to play. The boys were single-minded in making their shot count. They had 44 days to train hard before proving themselves at the Memorial Cup.
Their competitors were the OHL champion Erie Otters, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champion Saint John Sea Dogs and the Western Hockey League champion Seattle Thunderbirds. The teams played the round robin format tournament from May 19 to 28.
Coming out strong, Spits’ right winger Jeremy Bracco scored a power-play goal in the first game, helping his team to a 3–2 win against the Saint John Sea Dogs on May 19.
The trend continued with the Spitfires scoring the first goal in their successive games.
Facing off against the Seattle Thunderbirds on May 21, in just 38 game seconds, the Spits tied a Memorial Cup record held by the 1978 WHL’s New Westminster Bruins for the fastest three goals scored by a team in a single period. The Spits won 7–1.
During the regular season, the Otters had beaten the Windsor team three out of four games. On May 24, the Spitfires showed Erie what they are really made of. When the clock ran out, it was 4–2 for Windsor.
The Otters and Spitfires advanced to the finals on May 28. Media across Canada were intrigued by the Windsor underdogs’ spectacular rebound. Although the Memorial Cup games were televised on Sportsnet and TVA Sports in Canada and on the NHL Network in the United States, clearly the best place to be was the WFCU Centre.
The fans who claimed every one of the arena’s 6,519 seats certainly thought so.
The game was a nail biter, with the Spitfires and Otters both flexing their dominance on the ice with back and forth scoring. The second period concluded with Erie and Windsor tied at three.
Fortune and opportunity were with the Spits when centre Aaron Luchuk came off the bench during a line change in the third period. Receiving the puck from Jeremy, Aaron fired it into the Otters’ net. Remarking on the luck guiding the puck, Aaron says, “You don’t know where it’s going to go, but it found a hole.”
His shot scored the winning goal, making it 4–3 for the Spits.
The team and their fans went wild.
Setting tournament history, the Spitfires are the first host team to lose in the first round of league playoffs and then go on to win the Memorial Cup.
“It’s so special winning at home, especially with this group of guys,” Michael says. The goalie gave much credit to Spitfire fans. “The crowd was so loud and played a big part in this, threw the momentum in our favour. They’re part of this, too, and helped us bring it home.”
Accordingly, the Spitfires shared the glory with hundreds of fans during a victory parade and celebration hosted by the proud City in downtown Windsor on May 31.
Unable to attend was diehard fan, Dan Klinck. He saw every Spits game and was crossing McHugh Street to the WFCU Centre to see the May 28 finale when a vehicle struck him. In hospital with broken bones and head injuries, Dan was thrilled when Spitfire Cristiano DiGiacinto paid him a visit, with the shiny cup in hand. The left winger believes, “Everyone should get a chance to see it or feel it.”