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.
I will be watching on a slight tape delay for much of the first part of the game – yard chores kept me a little bit later than I thought today – so don’t nobody call me on the phone and be giving me updates about what’s happening.
One game for the big trophy. Winner takes all; the Memorial Cup delivers up a notional game 7 for the Championship each and every year. I can’t bear blogging along with the game; my father-in-law and I are camped out on the couch with beers in hand ready to take it all in. I hope it’s a good game, and I hope my Spits are holding the hardware at the end of the day. I’m gonna say it again: this tournament owes us one. It is dangerous to demand satisfaction from the hockey gods, but perhaps a subtle reminder of an existing imbalance in the hockey cosmos will persuade them to rectify the historical imbalance of karma.
Go Spits Go!!!
UPDATE: Twenty minutes to go for a Memorial Cup Championship? Kelowna is going to come at us like crazy, but that late goal from Ellis is huge and makes the Rockets’ mountain a tall one to climb. I am not assigning any numbering to any sort of poultry, but this is an excellent position for the boys to be in. Go Spits Go!!!!
The OHL Champion Spitfires dropped their first two games of the Memorial Cup tournament (to Drummondville and Rimouski) before beating Western powerhouse Kelowna to force a tiebreaker on Thursday night vs. Rimouski. The Spits were down two goals entering the 3rd period in that game, but Leaf prospect Dale Mitchell scored 3 goals in 3:33 of the third period to propel the Spits into the lead; Windsor won the game 6-4 to earn a berth in the last night’s semi-final vs. Drummondville. In other words, the Spits have taken the hardest possible road to get to the Cup Final. A physically large and very talented Kelowna Rockets club has been waiting since Wednesday night, watching the other 3 teams clobber each other in an effort to get to the Final. If the Spits win the Memorial Cup, they will be the first team to do so by going through the tiebreaker procedure in the history of the tournament.
Here’s Adam Henrique’s winning goal from overtime last night:
First period: Two early chances for Taylor Hall, then a frantic series in the Windsor zone at about the 3 minute mark in which Engelage is down and out and Adam Henrique collapses to the front of his goal (I think) and makes a terrific block on a sure goal from Riendeau. Drummondville is buzzing; I believe they have the generally superior team speed. If they are able to keep that kind of pace up, Windsor will be in trouble. On the other hand, if the Spitfires are able to keep the pressure on Drummondville over the entire ice surface, disrupting their flow, the Spitfires will win.
Things seem to be settling down a wee bit; the teams are racing back and forth a bit. It is encouraging to see the Spitfires breaking up some of the Drummondville rushes, but these wide open opportunities at the feet of Engelage are obviously not on the menu. As an aside, why the hell are we doing an in-game interview with coach Bob Boughner less than seven minutes in to the game? Is he really likely to have gained a lot of insight into the game at that point?
Dale Mitchell is down and hurt at the Drummondville blue line after a collision with Drummondville defenceman Ryan McKiernan, resulting in the game’s first penalty (for kneeing). Nemisz blasts one wide left from the slot. The power play – for a change – is actually maintaining control of the puck in the offensive zone. The PP is over now, Cousineau wasn’t seriously challenged, but he was required to make a couple of quick saves; the penalty has been served. Windsor seems to have begun dictating play once again, but then a loose puck is recovered by Jonathon Brunelle in the Windsor zone and a battle for the puck in the corner leads to a Windsor penalty. Engelage makes a huge save on a wide-open Vachon to keep the game scoreless. Timmins and MacDermid manage some good pressure down ice while shorthanded and force a couple of face offs. The penalty is killed successfully. A minute or two later, Johnathon Brunelle is trying to do a preview of the Indy 500 in the Windsor zone; he’s carrying the puck around and around the perimeter of the zone, occasionally centring the puck dangerously and – just as often – recovering it himself. Thankfully, that little flurry ends harmlessly.
First period: The best early scoring chance went to Rimouski; Spitfires goaltender Andrew Engelage stood tall on a long two on one and made an excellent save with his right arm on a quick wrist shot. There was another amusing moment when Windsor’s Adam Henrique finished his check with authority on Oceanic defenceman Emmanuel Boudreau, sending Boudreau into the boards heavily where Rimouski backup netminder Matthew Dopud was standing, toppling the bench-bound Dopud unceremoniously to the seat of his pants in the process.
The opening goal came from Windsor’s Eric Wellwood on a nice pass from Henrique; the feed put Wellwood in tight alone on Oceanic goaltender Gougeon, where the Windsor forward made a quick move to his backhand and deposited the puck deftly in the net between Gougeon’s legs. Rimouski roared right back with a goal from Piche, but the Spits had a quick response of their own: a soft goal on a right-wing wrist shot from Scott Timmins past Gougeon’s glove. The game was off to a great start with three goals in a minute and seventeen seconds, all in the first nine minutes of play. Not long after, Lane MacDermid took a boarding penalty in the Oceanic zone that Rimouski converted almost immediately into a power-play goal by Caron; that marker was produced by Spitfire forward Greg Nemisz’ failure to clear the puck on an opportunity immediately after the face-off, and a nice bit of passing by Rimouski’s Cornet and Cormier. Eric Wellwood had another terrific opportunity late in the period that he produced almost entirely by himself with his explosive speed, but his shot high to the blocker side went over the crossbar. Less than a minute later, Emmanuel Boudreau’s shot from the Windsor blueline went through a forest of players past Engelage for a 3-2 Rimouski lead. The Oceanic had an excellent opportunity to go up by two goals near the end of the first while shorthanded when Nemisz handled the puck carelessly from the point position on the power play, had his pocket picked by Boudreau and Boudreau fed the puck to Caron on an odd-man rush. The conclusion of the play saw Engelage down and out and clearly unaware of the whereabouts of the puck, but the disc was recovered and cleared to safety before the Oceanic forwards could retrieve it and fire it past the prone Windsor netminder.
Windsor seemed to begin the period applying excellent early pressure on the Rimouski puck carrier all over the ice. As much as I like the way Scott Timmins plays, it has to be said that the Spits seemed to sag perceptibly following Timmins’ careless boarding penalty and the quick Rimouski powerplay goal that followed. When the pressure evaporated somewhat, Rimouski seemed to get its skating legs and to generate some consistent offensive pressure of its own.
Second period: Early in the frame, Sptifires winger Austin Watson – who has been in the lineup since Justin Shugg injured his collarbone earlier in the tournament – took a delay of game penalty; Watson got caught clearing the puck directly over the unusually low glass in the Rimouski Colisée. The Spits killed that penalty thanks to some nice work from Ryan Ellis, Scott Timmins and Lane MacDermid. Much of the first half of the period was spent with the teams basically trading end to end rushes, though near the 12 minute mark sonsecutive shifts by the Timmins line and the Loktionov/Hall/Nemisz trio generated some sustained cycling pressure in the Oceanic zone. The Spits made a strong bid for the tying goal with seven and a half remaining in the period when Hall recovered a puck in the Oceanic zone, cycled it to Ryan Ellis on the point and Ellis launched a bomb that rang off the post behind Gougeon. The Spitfires very definitely began applying significant and sustained pressure in the offensive zone during this period. The Timmins/MacDermid/Watson forward line managed to draw a holding penalty from Patrick Delisle-Houde with a little more than 6 minutes remaining in the frame. Some terrific penalty killing by Oceanic captain Olivier Fortier produced some dicey moments directly in front of Andrew Engelage on the powerplay as Windsor’s powerplay again struggled to control the puck for sustained periods in the offensive zone. Strangely, with the penalty killed and Timmins’ line on the ice again, the Spitfire pressure seemed to immediately return and Oceanic goaltender Gougeon was called upon to make a terrific pad save on Lane MacDermid who recovered a loose puck in the slot on a scramble and whipped a shot right on target that Gougeon not only blocked, but controlled and froze. Ben Shutron got his stick up on Boudreau off the ensuing face-off and Rimouski went to the powerplay. Veilleux had two excellent chances, one of which was defused by Timmins and the other of which resulted in an Engelage save. Moments later, Sebastian PIché hit Cormier in stride up the middle to put the Oceanic forward in alone on Engelage. Cormier made a backhand to forehand deke to fool Engelage and deposited the puck in the empty net behind him to put the Oceanic up two goals. With a little more than a minute to go in the second period, Ryan Ellis had a wide open chance from the high slot and drilled one shoulder high at Gougeon, who seemed to get a small piece of it on the way by. To add insult to injury, Rimouski appeared to have cleared the puck over the glass in the final minute in such a fashion as to warrant a delay of game penalty call, but none was forthcoming.
Windsor must have felt unlucky to find themselves another goal behind as the second period drew to a close, having generally been at least as good as (if not superior to) the Oceanic throught the game and the period. Cue the 3rd period magic.
Third period: The Timmins/MacDermid/Watson line produced some early pressure in the first two minutes of the period. With 18 minutes to go in the period, Rimouski’s Caron recovered a loose puck in the Windsor zone and attempted to feed it to an open man in front but Dale Mitchell alertly deflected the centring attempt to defuse a dangerous opportunity. Less than two minutes later, Wellwood rushed up the left wing, lost the puck after a heavy check but it was recovered by his linemate Loktionov, as Windsor pursued the puck smartly. Loktionov circled the Oceanic net and centred it. Dale Mitchell had stealthily positioned himself at the top of the crease; Mitchell showed good hands under pressure to recover the puck and slip it past Gougeon to draw the Spits within one. The Timmins line again produced pressure on the very next shift, causing Cormier to draw a hooking penalty on Austin Watson off the left post. On the ensuing power play, Loktionov recoverd a puck on the left wing boards and fed it to Taylor Hall, who showed excellent vision dishing the disc to Mitchell – alone again – in the slot. Mitchell’s quick wrist shot beat Gougeon cleanly high to the glove side and the game was tied six minutes into the third. On the very next shift (and only thirty seconds or so on the clock later), Rimouski took another penalty, this time following a neutral zone hook on Windsor defenceman Mark Cundari by Oceanic winger Logan MacMillan. Moments later, Ryan Ellis took a wrist shot from the point that Gougeon had difficulty controlling; when it dropped to his feet Mitchell was again standing on the doorstep to bang the biscuit home. In three and a half minutes, the Spitfires had gone from two goals down to a one goal lead. All of a sudden, the Spitfires could do no wrong and the Oceanic were clearly stunned by their reversal of fortune. The Oceanic had their chances to tie the game up, particularly on a powerplay with about seven minutes to go (Rob Kwiet had been sent off for tripping); Engelage made a couple of terrific stops and Windsor’s recent success seemed to go to their legs, as the early pressure throughout the ice surface seemed to return to the Spitfires’ game. The game seemed to be setting up for a pretty dramatic finish when, with two minutes to play, Boudreau took a hooking penalty (and a highly questionable one at that – a one handed dig in the corner that seemed not to interfere with the Spitfire player’s progress at all). Desperate to try and even up the manpower situation, Rimouski coach Clément Jodoin called for the measurement of Andrew Engelage’s goal stick. The goalie’s cue was ruled to be legal and the Oceanic were accordingly assessed a two minute minor for delay of game, leaving them two men down for basically the remainder of the game. In the dying seconds of the game, Loktionov found Greg Nemisz standing unmarked off the left post for an exclamation point goal at 19:59 of the 3rd.
The karma of the Memorial Cup seems to slowly be shifting in the Sptifires’ favour; after failing to win the Cup in 1988 after losing only one game of their last 40 (and that coming from a bad third period in the final) and dropping their opening two round-robin games to opponents generally believed to be inferior this time around, the Spits are starting to get a couple of breaks. Leaf fans should be thrilled at the performance by Leaf prospect and noted hipster doofus Dale Mitchell, who showed that he could find open spaces and that he can put the biscuit in the basket from in close, all while under pressure in key situations in the season and game. He’s not going to be Brett Hull, but he might just have a few twenty goal NHL seasons in him; more importantly, he might be the kind of guy that can be counted on to find a spot to shoot from and to make no mistake in hotly contested playoff matches, should post-season hockey ever become part of the Toronto hockey experience again.
On to tomorrow night and a rematch against Drummondville. I am convinced that the Spitfires have yet to play their best game in this tournament; they started strong tonight but got a little derailed after running in to penalty trouble and getting burned. They seemed to be getting rattled again in the second period when they were clearly the better team but saw no success on the scoreboard, then felt they were getting hosed by the refs. Somebody said something in that dressing room at the end of the second period that focussed the team on the job at hand. Huge kudos to Windsor coach Bob Boughner, who seems to understand very well the role of a responsible energy line in getting a team pulling all together on the same rope; Boughner consistently goes to the Timmins/MacDermid line (recently rounded out with rookie Andrew Watson) to produce pressure and get his skill players going.
Here’s hoping the Spits can keep their heads and play through their fatigue tomorrow: win one more and we get to play for the Big Trophy. Go Spits Go!!!