With the OHL playoffs approaching (and the Leafs out of contention for this year’s post-season tournament), I am excited about the prospects for my former favourite team in the whole goddam world, the Windsor Spitfires. I have to confess that it has been a long time since I attended a Spits game – I think it was 1992 and I was in my last year of law school at the time. After moving away from the Rose City in the summer of ’92, I haven’t really followed the team very closely at all. With the economic downturn absolutely slaughtering the North American auto industry – and taking out a large part of the town I grew up in the process – I am happy, for the people of Windsor, to see that the Spitfires have been a dominant force in the league this year.
There was a story in the Toronto Star today about the Spits‘ goaltender setting a record for most wins in a season. I will reproduce it in its entirety here, because the links on the Star website don’t seem to last long:
WINDSOR, Ont.–Goaltender Andrew Engelage earned his 46th win last night, setting an Ontario Hockey League single-season record, and the Windsor Spitfires beat the Plymouth Whalers 5-1.
Engelage made 23 saves en route to beating the former record of 45 wins set by Steve Mason of the London Knights in the 2006-07 season. Mason is now in the NHL with the Columbus Blue Jackets and a leading candidate for rookie of the year.
Dale Mitchell opened the scoring for Windsor with his 33rd goal of the season when he took a centring pass from Mark Cundari and deposited a backhander behind Whalers netminder Matt Hackett.
Eric Wellwood scored short-handed to put the Spitfires up by two goals before the end of the first period. Andrei Loktionov and Taylor Hall scored 34 seconds apart midway through the third period to chase Hackett.
Scott Wedgewood replaced Hackett. The Plymouth netminders combined for 31 saves.
Jesse Blacker had the other goal for Windsor (57-8-0-1), which has already wrapped up first place in the OHL.
Matt Caria scored for the Whalers (35-26-5-0), who missed a chance to move into a tie with Saginaw for third place in the Western Conference.
Windsor has supported junior hockey in general and the Spitfires in particular very well over the years, through a lot more thin than thick. There were a few years in the late 80s where the team was something else.
Leaf fans could well understand the heartbreak of the 1988 season. After years of mostly middling mediocrity that left the team either outside the playoffs looking in or eliminated in an early round, the Spits went on a run in 1987-88. Led by the Shannon brothers (Darryl and Darrin), and coached by future Kings coach Tom Webster, the team went on a phenomenal streak that saw them go all the way to the Memorial Cup final game, where they faced a Medicine Hat Tigers team that featured Trevor Linden. Going in to this game, the Spits had remarkably gone undefeated through the entire OHL playoffs; in all, they had won 39 of their previous 40 games entering the Cup Final. As I recall, they even led through two periods but some late game heroics on the part of the Tigers – involving Linden himself, if I remember correctly – produced a one goal victory for Medicine Hat and a heartbreaking Memorial Cup “almost” for the lads from Windsor.
It was a devastating loss. Aside from one Wayne Maxner coached team in 1980 (that went to the OHL final and lost to Peterborough), that’s basically the sum total of success as far as hockey success goes in Windsor. Since that time, there have been some bad teams, a period of ownership instability, some controversy about the construction of a new facility for the team to play in, a notorious hazing incident involving Steve Downie, and the tragic death of the team’s Captain Mickey Renaud in February 2008.
Times are tough all over and in a globally interconnected world economic reversals are not isolated or insular, but the people of Windsor are taking a disproportionate shit-kicking right now because of the difficulties being experienced by the North American auto industry. The heavy concentration of people employed directly by the automakers or indirectly by their suppliers has Windsor’s unemployment rate, according to today’s Windsor Star, at 12.6% – the highest in the country.
I know it’s facile to suggest that the success of a Major Junior A hockey team could realistically alleviate the suffering that any of the families directly affected are going through, and I’m not going to go there. Those people are more concerned about how they’re going to put food on the table and keep the heat on. For those folks, I wish them well and hope that they are able to start caring about such trivial things again sooner, rather than later.
As for the rest of the people in the area, though, some Sptifire success would help. I was living in Windsor during the last recession in the early 90’s, and I have seen first hand the kind of effect that such high unemployment rates can have on everybody living in the area – people all over town get kind of grim and worried, and rightfully so. Even those who still have jobs and whose businesses aren’t failing see the problems their neighbours are having. They feel terrible for their neighbours and wonder how long it will be before the wolves are at their own door. They wonder what long-term damage is being done to their community by the impoverishment of the tax base. They wonder how long will investment in the construction and repair of infrastructure will be put off in hope of more prosperous times, and they wonder if their town will survive the downturn and continue to be the kind of place in which they can live, work and raise their kids.
The thing that keeps people determined to keep going in times like that is hope, and hope – like fire – needs a flash point. So here’s hoping, on behalf of all of those in the City of Roses waiting and hoping desperately for some good news for a change, for those needing something “feel good” to nourish their flagging spirits, that the Spits can go on another run this spring and bring home a Memorial Cup Championship. I am going to make it my mission to follow along a little, where I can.
I have mentioned elsewhere that following the Spitfires as a kid is what really gave me the taste to follow sports of any kind. I well remember sitting high in the stands at the old Windsor Arena on a Sunday afternoon with my father, my uncle and my brothers; listening to the cowbell lady urging on her charges from somewhere down near the end boards; feeling the passion of the assenbled throng follow her, gather, and find expression in a full-throated Go Spits Go chant that could, in the tiny confines of that building, visibly be seen to spur the Spitfire players on to tremendous flurries of pressure; and finally erupting in the joyful celebration of a late goal to send the Spits to victory over their hated rivals the London Knights. I want to do my part to start the chant right here, and right now: Go Spits Go! Go Spits Go! GO SPITS GO!