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The Saginaw Spirit are trying to turn the corner

The OHL’s Saginaw Spirit got a big boost this week when defenseman Bode Wilde signed on to play with the franchise. He’s just the latest draft gamble that has paid off for the Michigan-based team, which is starting to put something together after years of fallow results.

Wilde, who was taken in the second round of the NHL draft this summer by the New York Islanders, is a big, exciting blueliner with a bomb shot from the point. He had been committed to the University of Michigan, but announced pre-draft that he would pursue “non-school options” instead.

WIlde comes from the U.S. National Team Development Program and is the third NTDP alum to sign on with the Spirit in two years. Last season, center Jake Goldowski left the NTDP for Saginaw, while another center, Blade Jenkins, had left during the summer. Jenkins was also drafted by the New York Islanders this summer.

The NTDP is an elite program, but not every forward can play in the top six or on the power play. Some players adjust (Anaheim prospect Troy Terry, for example), while others seek new avenues like Jenkins and Goldowski.

The fact all three players are going to be wearing a Saginaw jersey this fall is a combination of luck and planning. GM Dave Drinkill took over the franchise in 2015-16 and was shocked at the lack of American talent on the roster (Missouri’s Blake Clarke and Illinois’ Cole Coskey were the only ones), given the team’s Michigan address and how many great players come out of the state.

“That didn’t make any sense to me,” Drinkill said. “I made it a point to go after those players.”

In the case of Wilde, Drinkill had to wait two years - he drafted the young defenseman back in 2016. Speaking with an agent who has OHL clients, it became apparent that Drinkill’s patience has been a boon for the Spirit. It's also worth noting that any or all of Wilde, Jenkins and Goldowski could have forced a trade to another OHL team if they didn't want to join the Spirit; none of the players were out of options, despite leaving behind their NCAA aspirations.

Another checkmark for the GM was the hiring of coach Troy Smith, who took over last season after coaching stints in Hamilton and Kitchener.

“Troy has been around the league for a long time, in every aspect,” Drinkill said. “That’s important for recruiting, too. Nothing surprises him; he’s seen everything as a coach and a player. Plus, he played junior in the United States, so he can talk to Canadian parents about what it’s like.”

That’s important, because Saginaw didn’t have the best reputation for a while. In 2015, the city had the third-highest crime rate in the state, behind only Detroit and Flint. That rate is decreasing, but there is also the memory of Terry Trafford, the Spirit player who took his own life in 2014. For a time, some agents weren’t too keen on their players going to Saginaw, but now when I ask, there are no reservations. Drinkill and Smith are big reasons why.

Drinkill came over from the Barrie Colts and along with trying to get more American talent on the team, he’s making sure his pitch to Canadian kids is just as strong. Before the OHL draft, he tries to visit as many kids as he can, either meeting with the players and their parents at their home, or in a hotel conference room.

Once the kids are drafted by Saginaw, their parents can take bus tours of the city, while the players themselves get to see a dressing room that was renovated just last year. One big score from Canada is center Cole Perfetti, who was taken fifth overall by the Spirit in the 2018 OHL draft. Perfetti was committed to the University of Michigan and at the time, it seemed like a risky pick by Drinkill. But Perfetti has some fun OHL ties. Growing up in Oshawa, Perfetti’s parents were billets for the OHL Generals, hosting players such as Cole Cassels and Tampa Bay’s Andy Andreoff. Drinkill gave them the grand tour and the pitch paid off, as the young center signed with Saginaw. Perfetti is a tremendously skilled player who helped the Vaughan Kings get to the OHL Cup final this past spring and I could see him putting up some nice numbers as a rookie.

Saginaw also took advantage of the overturned ban on import goalies this summer by selecting Arizona Coyotes prospect Ivan Prosvetov of Russia. The 6-foot-5 netminder has also committed to the Spirit, giving the team a nice roster heading into the 2018-19 campaign. Should things go really well, the team has a number of draft picks that can be traded at the deadline for reinforcements.

The Spirit will still have a lot of tough competition in the Western Conference this season and success is never guaranteed. But thanks to the leadership in place now, at least Saginaw is back in the fight.

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