RIMOUSKI, Que. – The Windsor Spitfires won a MasterCard Memorial Cup for themselves, their city and a teammate they lost suddenly last season.
The Spitfires scored on their first three shots of the game and then threw a defensive cover over the game to defeat the Kelowna Rockets 4-1 on Sunday and claim their first major junior hockey championship.
Windsor went into the four-team tournament as the favourite after dominating the Ontario Hockey League all season, but they dropped their first two games in Rimouski and needed four straight must-win victories to pull out the tournament win.
”We knew if anyone could do it, it was us,” said team captain Harry Young. ”We have such a close group here.
”It was the first time this year we really faced adversity and we pulled through.”
Adam Henrique, Dale Mitchell and Rob Kwiet scored in the first period, while projected first-round draft pick Ryan Ellis got one in the second for the Spitfires.
Rising star Taylor Hall, an early candidate to go first overall in the 2010 NHL draft, was named most valuable player of the tournament with two goals and six assists in six games.
Colin Long scored for Kelowna, which won the Memorial Cup in 2004.
The Spitfires were in only their second Memorial Cup – they lost the final in 1988 in Chicoutimi, Que., to the Medicine Hat Tigers – and will bring the trophy home to a city starved for good news while enduring a painful slump in the auto industry.
”With the atmosphere at home and all the people supporting us, it means everything for us to do this for them,” added Young. ”Being a local kid, they’ve been talking about that ’88 team for so many years and now they’ll be talking about us.
”We made history here and it feels really good.”
The Spitfires also brought out the No. 18 jersey of Mickey Renaud, their former captain who died suddenly of an apparent heart problem during the 2007-08 season. The team keeps the jersey in the locker room so he is not forgotten.
When the final buzzer sounded at the Colisee de Rimouski, an assistant coach brought the jersey onto the ice for the celebration.
”We knew he was watching over us all tournament,” said Young, one of Renaud’s closest friends.
The win ended the Western Hockey League’s hold over the Canadian junior hockey championship. The Vancouver Giants won in 2007 and the Spokane Chiefs followed in 2008. Windsor is the first OHL club to win since the London Knights in 2005.
The uneventful, one-sided final was anti-climax to a tournament that had featured closely contested games, including three that went into overtime, after Kelowna’s easy tournament-opening 4-1 win over the host Rimouski Oceanic.
”It’s difficult when you give up goals early on,” said Kelowna coach Ryan Huska. ”I thought we did a good job of making sure we didn’t quit or lose that emotional control.
”We stuck with it and tried to work our way back in. In the first period, a lot of the play was in Windsor’s zone, but it’s just the way some games go. They got a lead and then you don’t have to push as much as the team that’s trailing. It’s tough to come back against good hockey clubs.”
The Spitfires jumped on the rusty Rockets, who hadn’t played since Tuesday, for three goals in the opening 7:11 of play. They scored on their first three shots against the previously solid Mark Guggenberger, who was pulled in favour of Adam Brown. Little-used Brown last played three periods on March 14.
It started at 3:22, when Greg Nemisz stripped Mikael Backlund of the puck from behind and fed Henrique in the slot for his fourth goal of the tournament.
Mitchell raced down the right side, bumped Tysen Dowzak aside and scored at 4:58.
Guggenberger was caught napping as Kwiet scored on a soft shot from the point that slipped between the goaltender’s pads on a power play at 7:11
Lane MacDermid was sent off for kneeing Long with six seconds left in the first period and the Kelowna centre struck back eight seconds into the second on the rebound of Jamie Benn’s backhander.
The puck rarely left the Windsor end in the middle period until the Spitfires produced a killer goal at 12:46. Good work in a corner by Henrique and Hall got the puck to Ellis at the right point for a precision blast in off the goalpost at 12:46 to restore a three-goal lead.
”We got a little fortunate early,” said Windsor’s Bob Boughner, who was named Canadian junior coach of the year on Saturday. ”We had a couple of goals go in that maybe weren’t great goals.
”Kelowna kept fighting back, but we played that smothering style and put a blanket on them.”
Many felt that the gritty Henrique, who led the team and tied for the tournament lead with nine points, should have been MVP, but the speedy and dangerous Hall was also a force throughout the tournament.
”For sure, I’m very proud of the fact that I won MVP, but it was the team that won the tournament and if I didn’t have this group of guys around me I wouldn’t have won it,” the Kingston, Ont., native said. ”It’s a credit to them and to me.”
Many among the 4,811 Colisee fans sporadically booed the Rockets, apparently on the premise that they didn’t try hard enough to eliminate Windsor when they had a chance in their final round robin game – a 2-1 Spitfires win over a Kelowna side that had already clinched a berth in the final.
After that win, the Spitfires beat Rimouski in a tie-breaker game, then dumped Drummondville in the semifinal. The final was their fourth game in six days. They are the first team to win the Cup after having to play in a tie-breaker game.
Kelowna star Jamie Benn was hurt six minutes into the game when he crashed into the boards while trying to hit Hall. He limped to the bench, but was able to return right away, although he appeared to be off his usual game.
Next year’s Memorial Cup will be held in Brandon, Man.
Notes: Rogers Sportsnet has signed a five-year extension with the Canadian Hockey League to continue broadcasting the Memorial Cup and other junior hockey events. It includes 10 national regular season games, one OHL playoff game, 12 regional games the six ADT Canada-Russia Challenge games, the top prospects game and the OHL all-star game.