2009 Memorial Cup Champions: Turning the Page on 1988

2009 Memorial Cup Champions - Mickey Renaud's Jersey Front & Centre

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.

Go Spits Go! One More for the Memorial Cup

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Go Spits Go, One More Time This Year!

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!!!!

Windsor 2, Kelowna 1: Don’t Stop Believin’

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Go Spits Go!! I still believe...!!

This tournament owes us one, dammit.  I still believe.

After dropping round robin games to Drummondville and Rimouski to kick off the tournament, the Spitfires faced off tonight against a Kelowna Rockets team that had already clinched a berth in the Tournament Final on Sunday.    Whereas the Spits had to win to keep any hope alive of moving along in the tournament, the result of the game was meaningless to Kelowna.  It looked to me as though the Spits had actually caught a bit of a break in that regard;  the asymmetric motivation showed, as the Rockets seemed to lack a sense of urgency at times in their play.

I couldn’t bring myself to live blog the game; I had to do something to change the mojo after two live blogs and two crushing losses.

An even first period produced no scoring, with fairly even – but tentative – play on both sides.  In the second period, with Windsor forward Adam Henrique off for hooking, Kyle St. Denis tipped in a Tyler Myers drive from the point to give the Western Hockey League Champs an early lead.  The Spitfires had been pressing somewhat, and a team of lesser character might have sagged then and there, decided it wasn’t to be and prepared to go home.  These Spitfires, though, refused to die.

Taylor Hall hit two goalposts in the second frame.  Kelowna’s Mark Guggenberger also lived up to his nickname – The Guggenburglar – on a couple of occasions, stopping quality Windsor bids to score.  Finally, a Spitfire goal was had in the way goals are often scored in such circumstances, by crashing the net and getting a crazy bounce into the net.  Hall was credited with the goal, and the Spitfires seemed to draw energy from both that and a series of penalty kills as the second period drew to an end.

Ryan Ellis scored for Windsor early in the third, giving the desperate Windsorites a tenuous 2-1 lead.  After only a few more minutes, Kelowna was in penalty trouble and the Spitfires began pressing to score an insurance goal.  There were  a couple of extended 5 on 3s, the second of which featured the most inspired bit of penalty killing I have seen in quite some time.  Remember this name:  Cody Almond.  The Kelowna defenceman blocked 4 shots, all of which were heavy blasts from the high slot, all of which Almond blocked at point blank range, and all of which he got in a single shift.   Remarkably, the Spitfires failed to score.

The game came to a conclusion with some intelligent forechecking on the part of the Spitfires;  pressure in the neutral zone and up ice prevented the Rockets from getting goaltender Guggenberger out of the net and mounting a serious bid to tie the game.

So now the Spitfires will play a tiebreaker game on Thursday against either Drummondville or Rimouski.  They will have an opportunity to move on.  They will have an opportunity to control their destiny and mount a challenge for the Memorial Cup.  It will be a difficult road and a LONG road if the Spitfires are to play in the Championship Final – they will have to win the tiebreaker and then the sem-final before playing for the Cup on Sunday.  Teams do not generally take this road to a Memorial Cup championship; but like I said, this tournament may owe the Spits one yet.  I remember the way this tournament took a championship from the Spitfires in 1988.  I’ll say it again:  the Spits won 39 of their last 40 games that fateful season;  the only one they lost was the Memorial Cup final – and they had gone into the third period leading in that one too.  It’s been a rocky road so far in this tournament, with many folks writing that the Spitfires were favourites who had disappointed;  there still remains an opportunity for the Spits to achieve something very special.

They could win one the hard way.   Go Spits Go!!!!

Notes: Strong play again tonight from Scott Timmins  and Craig Nemisz.   Ryan Ellis was an absolute beast;  he made one diving play on the third period powerplay to keep the puck in at the Kelowna blueline that showed he has the heart of a champion.  That kid can play.  Taylor Hall continued to get a raft of scoring chances, but showed some immaturity, I think, taking a couple of foolish penalties late in both the second and third periods that could have proved fatal.   For the Rockets, Myers and Benn both look like rock solid pro prospects, and – if Cody Almond hasn’t already been drafted – he should be simply on the basis of that one penalty-killing shift alone.  Leaf fans will be a little disappointed to hear that 3rd-round pick Dale Mitchell had little impact on this game.  He did take an elbow to the throat that went unpenalized, but beyond that didn’t generate energy the way he did in two previous games.