It had no effect on the players, of course. It couldn’t have – most of the guys wearing Spitfire sweaters today weren’t even born when it happened, so how could it have any effect on them? Nonsense. It did, though, have an effect on their fans. I know that to be true.
“It” was the 1988 Memorial Cup Final game. Two months ago, I wrote that the City of Windsor needed a Memorial Cup Champion more than any other place in this country. The case that I laid out for a Rose City Champion included consideration of economic factors (heavily dependent upon the suffering North American auto manufacturing sector, Windsor has the worst unemployment in the country); it included consideration of the tragic death of the team’s young captain last year (Mickey Renaud, from a hidden heart defect); and it included reference to some dicey circumstances for the franchise itself (a notorious hazing incident and some ownership instability, along with the perennial struggle to get a new place to play in). All of those things are true, and all of them make a compelling case for the Spitfires as Memorial Cup Champion.
But the factor that tipped the scales, in my humble (and biased) opinion, was the gut-wrenching history of the Spits in the Memorial Cup tournament. After years of mostly disappointing teams (only one trip to the league final, in 1980), the Spits finally had a powerhouse team in 1988. The one and only time the club had made it to the big dance in 1988, the team was a prohibitive favourite. That team won 39 of its last 40 games. It went undefeated – UNDEFEATED – in four rounds of the OHL playoffs (just imagine that). It skated through the round robin portion of the Cup undefeated as well. And it jumped out to a 3-0 lead over its opponent, the Medicine Hat Tigers. Coached by Tom Webster (later the bench boss of the Rangers and Gretzky-era Kings – just prior to Barry Melrose’s Mullet – in the NHL). The Spits were a lock to hoist that Memorial Cup trophy that day; I remember it. I remember lusting after that moment on that day. As a Spits fan, someone who had followed the team as a young boy since the inception of the modern franchise in 1975, it was finally going to be our turn to hold the trophy that ordinarily got won every year by somebody else from a bigger, better city or a more famous junior hockey program. It was time to walk on to the big stage with all the other Grade “A” franchises.
The thing is, though, the hockey gods do not like it when things are so predictable and certain. And so the hockey gods threw Spitfire fans a curveball that day. I remember they were leading going in to the third period, and I remember thinking they had the game in hand. When the buzzer sounded at the end of the game though, they had lost 7-6 to Trevor Linden’s Medicine Hat Tigers. Somebody else was carrying our trophy around the ice; the team that had lost one game in forty was only second best.
It was a gut punch. Red Sox fans used to talk about Bill Buckner and the grounder that got through his legs in 1986, or Bucky Fucking Dent (his middle name has legally been changed by sheer force of usage in New England) hitting a homer in the 1975 divisional playoff. Obviously, Ontario Major Junior “A” Hockey had (and has) a slightly lower profile than Major League Baseball, and where Red Sox fans were legion (even BEFORE they essentially became the Yankees’ doppelganger since 2004), Spitfires fans numbered in the mere thousands. I am here to tell you, though, that the 1988 Memorial Cup Final has been a bad taste in the mouth of anybody who has followed Windsor Spitfire hockey.
And now it’s gone.
After an arduous and well-documented difficult route to the Cup Final, It really only took about seven minutes and eleven seconds to finally get the job done. Coming out of the gate, the Spitfires exploded for three early goals against an opponent that seemed to struggle initially to shake off the rust from a five day layoff. The biggest casualty of the early Spitfire onslaught was Rockets’ goalie Mark Guggenberger, who allowed goals on the firstl three shots he faced in the Memorial Cup Final, and then got pulled. That .000 save percentage in the big game is going to dog him for a while, and it’s a shame; he played well in the tournament and really couldn’t be faulted on any of the goals he surrendered. In the end, damage to the young goaltender’s psyche had to be risked by Rockets coach Huska; he had to make a desperate attempt to shake his club up and get back in the game. It didn’t work, but Guggenberger is a better player than that summary line reflects. Here’s hoping he gets a chance at some point to chase those demons.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The first Spitfire goal came from an excellent play by Greg Nemisz, who I thought was a standout for the Spitfires in this tournament, especially since game two. Nemisz chased down a Rocket player from behind in the offensive zone, made a nice stick check and then a quick backhand pass to Adam Henrique, who made no mistake with a quick wrister low on Guggenberger’s glove side to make it 1-0 Windsor at 3:22 of the first. A minute and a half later, Dale Mitchell again showed some finish after a nice bit of determined hustle; he rushed the puck up the right wing boards and fought through a check along the wall to retrieve the loose puck, take a couple of steps in towards the net and unload a wrist shot high over Guggenberger’s glove, making it 2-0 Windsor. Kelowna was forced, not even five minutes into the game, to take its time out in an effort to quell the urge to panic among the young Rocket players. A short time later, with Windsor again pressing in the Rockets’ zone, Kelowna’s Kyle St. Denis tried to separate Mark Cundari from his knee and tooka penalty. On the ensuing power play, the puck was shot hard around, dug out along the wall by Henrique and Loktionov, then sent back to the point for defenceman Rob Kwiet who took two or three steps to his left and lofted a relatively harmless low shot that found its way through a forest of legs into the back of the Kelowna net: 3-0 Windsor, only seven minutes and eleven seconds in to the game.
As mentioned above, Kelowna pulled Guggenberger at that point, putting backup goaltender Adam Brown in a terrible position – apparently, he hadn’t played a single minute in the entire post season. Minutes later, he was facing a Dale Mitchell breakaway, and – needing to make a save to keep any hope at all for his team – he came up with a beauty pad save, and stopped Mitchell on the rebound to boot.
At the end of the first, Kelowna’s Long and Benn had been cycling the puck low in the Spitfire zone, finally creating some offensive pressure for the Rockets and ultimately drawing a holding penalty from Windsor’s diminutive defense superstar Ryan Ellis. The Spits killed that penalty and got a powerplay of their own (on a Jamie Benn boarding call) but failed to convert and soon after, the Rockets were cycling again down low in the Windsor zone. Lane MacDermid scooped up a centering attempt by Benn but promptly coughed the puck up to Long in the slot in front of Engelage; MacDermid then felled Long with a knee on knee hit that seemed to really hurt Long, though he would return for the beginning of the next period. In fact, when the second period began with MacDermid still in the box, Benn got a great jump on the drop of the puck off the opening draw, gobbled up the disc as it lay loose in the feet of the centremen fighting over it and drove in rapidly on Andrew Engelage in the Sptifire goal; he dished to a wide open Long who pounded it home to make it 3-1 and I had visions of 1988 all over again.
Here’s where the story was different than ’88, though: the Spitfires, to a man, kept to their early pressure, quick-forechecking system and challenged the Kelowna puck carriers early and often, everywhere on the ice surface. They really did basically throw a blanket over the Rockets from that point forward, and kept the pressure up by using their transition game to create offensive pressure of their own. It wasn’t perfect, and I’m not going to claim that I knew, sitting on my couch with my beer in hand, that the result was predetermined; the Rockets did generate some chances, but they were generally few and far between. I recall Engelage making a great glove save on Benn when the big Kelowna star was sprung up the left side, and I remember somewhere near the middle of the period Kyle St. Denis gathered up the puck in the neutral zone, swung wide on Windsor point man Mark Cundari and got a terrific backhand off that Engelage re-directed with his left shoulder. There were some tense moments when Lane MacDermid was called for tripping, essentially for dropping his stick and having Kelowna’s Grantham trip over it. At that point, I could feel Kelowna gathering some momentum and I wondered whether the Spitfires’ legs – six games in eight days – could withstand the barrage that woudl come if Kelowna potted a powerplay marker. But Cundari, Nemisz, Timmins and Young were brilliant in the first minute of the penalty kill for Windsor, and Hall Wellwood finished the job. The best scoring opportunity in this sequence came at the end of the Kelowna powerplay when MacDermid stepped out of the box and immediately took a pass that sprung him on a partial two on one with Spitfire phenom Taylor Hall as his attack partner. Kelowna’s Brandon MacMillan made a terrific diving play to break up the rush, and the Rockets got a bit of a break when the referee (who was behind the net and screened ) whistled the play down though the puck lay loose at Brown’s feet with Hall in tantalizing proximity.
That penalty kill, and the huge pendulum swing of momentum that shifted the other way when MacDermid broke in on the rush really was essentially it for the Rockets. Not long after that play, Ryan Ellis unleashed a bomb from the Kelowna blueline that Adam Brown had no chance at; Windsor’s three goal leadd was restored. Soon thereafter, with a puck high in the air in front of Andrew Engelage, Jamie Benn took a careless swing with his stick and smashed Cundari in the face, evidently drawing blood from the Spitfires’ defenceman. The Spits went to a four minute power play for most of the remainder of the second period and – offensively, at least – the Rockets really weren’t heard from again in this game.
The third period began with little or no pace. Kelowna’s forays into the Windsor zone were not threatening, per se; rather, they threatened to develop into something threatening, as when Mikael Backlund darted around low in the Spitfires’ zone, twisting and turning, but not really generating any actual chances. Instead, the Spitfires patiently stayed with their checks, refused to be drawn out of position for the most part, and waited to counter-attack on turnovers, trying to take advantage of the aggressive play of the Rockets’ defense. Dale Mitchell had two quality opportunities that developed out of such situations, but Brown was equal to him on both (including one clear breakaway from just over centre). In fact, Mitchell was hauled down on the play by the Rockets’ Tyson Barrie, and Windsor went to the powerplay for what would essentially be the rest of the game. Before all was said and done, though, Kelowna took one more penalty – a delay of game call – to go down two men and to remove any opportunity whatsoever for the Rockets to mount an attack. The clock ticked inexorably down, and the Spitfires became Memorial Cup Champions.
I thought Harry Young and Mark Cundari were standouts on defence for the Spitfires today; keeping in mind that Jesse Blacker was unable to play the final game because of an injury suffered in the semi-final against Drummondville, Cundari and Young played a lot of extra minutes today. Cundari in particular seemed to me to be entirely in control of his game; I think one of the Sportsnet announcers remarked that Cundari was having the game of his life, and I would hazard a guess that he’s right about that. Nemisz and Henrique were good again for Windsor, as was Ryan Ellis, who is an absolute workhorse back there with a cannon for a shot. I also thought that Andrew Engelage continued to play strong for the Spits in goal – he didn’t have his best stuff in the first three or four games, I didn’t think, but certainly showed up for the last two. Dale Mitchell also seemed to be full of hustle for the Windsor side.
Congratulations to the City of Windsor, to Warren Rychel’s ownership team, to the dedicated young players who showed grit, talent and determination to make it happen, and most of all – to the fans of the Windsor Spitfires. It was a long time coming, and the hockey gods made us travel a hard road to get there, but what a sweet victory it is. I was thrilled to have watched this team march toward a Championship; in a lot of ways, it was like being a kid again, only the crystal radio has turned into an Internet stream and instead of sitting with my back to the wall of the last row of the old barn eating cardboard popcorn with my Dad and my Uncle Frank, I was either watching in hi-def or at a gleaming new purpose-built hockey facility in Brampton, eating hot dogs that were cooked some time this century. I guess some things have changed, but not so radically in the end; tonight, I have a huge smile on my face because the Windsor Spitfires are Memorial Cup Champions. Way to go, Spitfires – and enjoy it, Rose City!