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.