When the Windsor Spitfires attempt to win the franchise’s third Mastercard Memorial Cup title since 2009 on Sunday, it will be a result of a rich tradition started by the team that romped through the OHL playoffs in 2009 only to hit a massive roadblock in Rimouski.
“A couple things that I will remember most in coaching the Spitfires is being down 0-2 and going in to the room with the other coaches and finding a way and push these guys just a little further,” said Bob Boughner, who was the coach of both Spitfires national championship teams and still retains an ownership stake in the hockey club.
“We had a passionate heart-to-heart and I had to explain the journey that we were on and that it wasn’t over. “
In the end, of course, the Spitfires reeled off four consecutive victories capped by a win over the Kelowna Rockets in the championship game. It was a complete sea-change from the story that emerged early on in Rimouski: that the heavily favoured OHL champions weren’t the team they were prescribed to be heading in.
Poor form is not unusual. Oftentimes, teams are so emotionally spent having won their league championship the focus to the Mastercard Memorial Cup can be difficult. The Seattle Thunderbirds struggles in Windsor this year are a perfect example.
But what made the Spitfires of 2008-09 unique was that they were heading down that road and managed to reverse course.
“Something clicked and we went in to invincibility mode,” said forward Scott Timmins, who now plays professionally in Germany after almost a decade playing in North America. “But that (happened) because we realized that we weren’t as good we thought at first.”
“Everybody was taking things too things too seriously but we rebounded by doing what we had already been doing all year,” added captain Harry Young, now a police officer in Windsor.
But now, like the Spitfires managed to do by getting to the championship game in 2009, the final becomes serious business where teams must balance the ability to not come undone under pressure but also realize that there really are no tomorrows if mistakes are made at the wrong time.
“It’s a special stage,” said Taylor Hall, whose major junior career was defined by his winning the Memorial Cup MVP award and later going No. 1 overall in the NHL Draft. “It’s the last game of the year. You know that you don’t have anything to save it for.”
Adam Henrique, Hall’s teammate in both Windsor and now with the New Jersey Devils, echoed a similar sentiment.
“We knew we had to to find a way to just go out and play,” said Henrique. “It’s a big game, the biggest game of some these guys’ careers but you have to be able to block it out.”
Dale Mitchell, another forward on the Spitfires two championship squads, also pointed out a key difference from now and when he helped Windsor win the Mastercard Memorial Cup.
“Our game in Rimouski was earlier,” said Mitchell. “We didn’t have the day for the enormity to get in your head. We just woke up and had breakfast and knew it was going to be another game. Now, they have the entire day to get excited, especially It being at home…they have to embrace it and enjoy the moment.”
Once the game begins, all the former Spits recall a certain calmness setting in, almost as though the anxiety of the poor start in 2009 washed away and the team’s overall talent took over, to say nothing of the preparation they had undertaken to get them there.
“If you look at that 2009 game, I had it easy,” said goaltender Andrew Engelage. “I think we were up 3-nothing five minutes in. That will relax your nerves quickly. It didn’t make it easy but it settled me in to the game. It was a lot leeway to get you settled.
“I understood the pressure. I was an overage but when I look back I was still a kid in the way I prepared.”
Boughner said that his team effectively switched into “no tomorrow” mode, to the defensive excellence that was an underrated element to the team that had so much scoring power.
“In the final game when we got that lead quickly, it wasn’t easy to put them away,” said Boughner, now an assistant coach with the San Jose Sharks. “We played a great game but (we had to) go into a defensive shell. The way we started it could have been five, six or even seven-nothing start but they came on hard. We went in to protection mode.”
Athletes that win multiple championships, often say that picking between them is very difficult – like picking a favourite child, and that everyone is unique and special. But in recalling their time at the top of the major junior hockey world almost a decade ago, many former Spits gave off both verbal and non-verbal cues that the first title was their favourite simply because it all could have ended so poorly.
And looked very much like it would at first turn into a disaster.
“I would say the first year only because it was a bit more special because we came-back from 0-2,” said Mitchell. “But so was the second year. It was just such an honour to play with guys like that, when you go up and down the roster.”
“It was such a grind because we forced ourselves to win four games in a row. Both teams had their challenges but we were such a close team that no matter win or lose, just great memories.”
The following year, the die was cast for the Spitfires domination in Brandon in many ways during the OHL Western Conference Final. The Spitfires came back from a three-games-to-none deficit against the Kitchener Rangers. Many players who spoke on Saturday after their alumni game drew comparisons to that comeback and the one they faced in Rimouski a year earlier.
Their coach agreed.
“Being down 0-3 to Kitchener was another character test that we passed with flying colours,” said Boughner. “That’s how tight our group was and a lot of those kids we drafted and cultivated ourselves.”
Windsor’s remarkable run in Brandon culminated in a 9-1 victory over the host Wheat Kings in the final. In an interesting contrast, the home team had done a remarkable job themselves of fighting back from a poor start to get to the final. Emotionally and physically spent by the time they got there, the Wheat Kings ran into a Spitfires buzzsaw, which only underlined how incredible Windsor’s two-year run as Mastercard Memorial Cup was.
“We were one of the best OHL teams of all-time,” said Young, stating an opinion that few would disagree with.
And the bonds still run deep. Most of all, it was the memories that have endured and will continue to endure.
“The time of our life,” said Hall, of the Windsor years.
The legacy of those two teams will be shown today on the ice at the WFCU Centre but it’s also being felt in other ways as players and coaches from that team grow older.
“We have talked about that,” said Boughner “(Eric) Wellwood, (Greg) Nemisz are coaching and Adam Wallace, who is now a Jr. B coach. Even with the (assistants) back then. D.J. Smith is in Toronto now, Bob Jones is in Oshawa, I’m gone to San Jose, it is testament to what we had. But that is what was special about that group, we had a lot of guys who just wanted to come to the rink every day. They loved being a hockey player and they loved being on the team together.
“It was such a great group of guys.”