After reaching the end of their road after bowing out of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Nashville Predators back in April, the Colorado Avalanche are about to hit the road again. This time, they head to American Airlines Center in Dallas for the 2018 NHL Draft!
As a result, this installment of Vlad’s View is the final look inside the Ontario Hockey League, as I take a look at some of the promising young talent of today striving to become the National Hockey League’s stars of tomorrow. Some of these young men will see their dreams come true as they anxiously await to hear their names over the loudspeakers and proudly pose with a new jersey on their backs, a culmination of a boyhood dream come true.
Before the first roll call of the night, let’s take a look back at my final Ontario Hockey League stop and a return to the lovely city of Windsor, Ontario, wrapping up a span of covering three OHL matchups in the span of three days.
A flurry of snowfall is our backdrop for this early Sunday afternoon adventure as I crossed the border into Windsor. With today being my final journey of the trip into Ontario, I decided that to take on Canada’s spin on Italian cuisine. Enter the lunch and dessert combo seen here, courtesy Vito’s Pizzeria in the Walkerville neighborhood of Windsor!
What?! No poutine on the final day in Ontario?! Yes, it’s true!
I love pasta, and if I can find a tasty fettucine alfredo, I will have a laser-like focus on it. Upon spotting this on the Vito’s menu, I immediately jumped at the chance to sample international Italian cuisine…internationally.
The pictures above is a classic pasta alfredo dish, with a sampling of tapas, rice, and garlic bread, and a very generous portion of tiramisu for dessert. I was really hoping, for an establishment priding itself on serving authentic Italian cuisine (according to their website), to have my taste buds immersed in Italian excellence. However, much like my experience the previous evening at Halo Burger in Flint, the fettucine was just…okay.
However, things kicked up a notch when I tasted the tapas. I haven’t had tapas in several years, and I was thoroughly impressed. The rice was a nice compliment to the tapas, while I was all-in on the fettucine, had I been able to hit the reset button, I would have gotten the full order of tapas. They were that good!
As for dessert, I was in absolute heaven with the tiramisu. It was cold, it had the right balance of sweet without being too sweet, and if there was any downside to this awesome dessert, it was too large of a portion for me to finish it in one sitting. There was no way I could have done that, otherwise I would have been making a beeline to one of the arena restrooms during the upcoming game to send most of my lunch.
With a wrap on lunch it was time to make the drive to the arena!
The Windsor Spitfires play at Windsor Family Credit Union (WFCU) Centre. This gem of a facility sports 6,500 seats, with luxury boxes atop many of the concourses along the length of the rink (note: for comparison’s sake, the Budweiser Event Center, home of the Colorado Eagles, has a seating capacity of 7,200 according to its website, and is five years older than WFCU Centre.). A large bar with additional seating atop the concourses is located in the Spitfires’ attack twice zone, and features many amenities one can find in most any other sporting venue. Unlike in Flint, it is possible to get poutine at one of the several concession outlets in the facility. However, unlike in Sarnia, there is no dedicated poutinerie. WFCU Centre does have multiple gift shops in its facility to satisfy any purchases one may desire (I made a quick stop at one of the shops prior to puck drop).
If I had one word to describe WFCU Centre, grand would certainly be fitting. Banners of Spitfire alumni line their rafters on one side of the arena, and numerous franchise accolades lining the other. Sight lines are incredible in this facility, and I would certainly be curious if any other CHL venue could match WFCU Centre in terms of grandeur and passion. This is a very proud franchise, and they certainly have plenty to boast about: since its founding in 1975, the club has won three OHL championships (including back-to-back crowns in 2009 and 2010) and three Memorial Cup championships (two of which were also back-to-back in 2009 and 2010), their most recent taking place last June when Windsor was the host city. The fanbase is likewise proud, having stuck by the Spitfires through tragedy and triumph.
Formation Around the Fallen
While the Spitfires franchise has seen many of its players graduate to the National Hockey League, one member of the Spitfires family never got to see his dream fulfilled. Center Mickey Renaud was a fifth round selection of the Calgary Flames in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. After his second season with the Spitfires, he was named captain for the 2007-2008 season. On February 18, 2008, Renaud suddenly collapsed during his morning breakfast and passed away due to a heart condition that had gone undetected. Renaud’s passing sent shockwaves through the junior hockey community.
The Spitfires dedicated the upcoming 2008-2009 season to Renaud; the team won both the OHL championship and the Memorial Cup that season, and successfully defended both crowns the following season. The OHL created the Mickey Renaud Captain’s Trophy in 2009 to be awarded to the “OHL team captain that best exemplifies the character and commitment that Renaud displayed during his career with the Spitfires.” The Spitfires also have a memorial inside WFCU Centre honoring Renaud.
Today’s contest pitted the hometown Spitfires against the visiting London Knights. The Knights also boast a successful pedigree, having won back-to back OHL and Memorial Cup championships of their own during the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 seasons, and most recently won both crowns during the 2015-2016 season. The Knights lost their claim to the OHL championship to the Erie Otters last season, however, and the aforementioned Spitfires had laid claim to the Memorial Cup championship. The Knights were riding back-to-back wins and were looking to reach the .500 mark with a victory in Windsor, as they carried a 9-10-2-1 record coming into today’s game. The Spitfires, with a record of 12-9-1-0, were looking to rebound after their 6-3 defeat at the hands of the Sarnia Sting in their previous outing (as chronicled here), carrying a 12-9-1-0 record into the matchup.
Many NHL scouts have taken notice of the talent pool the Knights possess. Left wing Max Jones and right wing Cliff Pu were selected in the 2016 NHL draft, while center Robert Thomas, left wing Alex Formenton, and defenseman Jacob Golden were a part of the 2017 NHL draft class (Formenton was a second round choice for the Ottawa Senators, and Golden was selected in the fifth round by the Minnesota Wild). Though undrafted, left wing Sam Militec was a free-agent signee by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2017.
(Author notes – the roster for the Knights has dramatically changed in the wake of this contest. Pu was traded to the Kingston Frontenacs on January 04, 2018, while Jones was traded to Kingston on January 06, 2018. Thomas was traded to the Hamilton Bulldogs on January 08, 2018. Militec was traded to the Niagara IceDogs on January 09, 2018. Although these players are no longer London property, they will be referred to as active members of the Knights’ roster in this article.)
The Avalanche do have a couple of London alumni in its history: former defenseman Kyle Quincey and curent defenseman Nikita Zadorov were products of the London franchise. While not an Avalanche alumnus, former Colorado Rockies defenseman Rob Ramage played for London, being one a select few players with the honor of having his number retired by the franchise. Additionally, Dale Hunter, who was originally drafted by the Quebec Nordiques (and played a handful of games in the twilight of his career for the Avalanche during the 1998-1999 season), owns the London franchise and serves as both its president and head coach.
The Avalanche are also represented in Windsor’s hockey operations as well: former defenseman (and current Florida Panthers head coach) Bob Boughner co-owns the Windsor franchise and likewise is its president. Former Avalanche left wing Warren Rychel is also co-owner of the franchise and also serves as team vice president and general manager. Having already chronicled the players from Windsor who have already been drafted here, I won’t mention them again.
Both teams played the first few minutes conservatively, trying to get a feel for the game. London goaltender Joseph Raaymakers was sound, stopping the early shot attempts thrown his way. His Windsor counterpart, Michael DiPietro, was equally up to the task, turning aside the early offensive strikes coming his way. A slashing penalty taken by Windsor center Tyler Angle gave London its first opportunity to take control of the game. London wasted little time, as Pu would score on the man advantage to give his team a 1-0 lead. The goal energized the London bench; wave after wave of London skaters peppered DiPietro with shots.
An errant check from behind by Windsor right wing Cole Purboo put London back on the power play, further pinning Windsor in their own end. DiPietro held fast, turning aside shot after shot to keep his team within one goal. Windsor caught a break when Militec took a slashing penalty to end the London man advantage. Both teams briefly skated four players before Windsor began its own power play. Windsor was unable to convert, and London headed into the first intermission with its one goal lead.
With only having a few moments to browse the gift shop prior to the start of the game, I went back for a more lengthy visit during the first intermission. To my surprise, the gift shop I visited earlier was only a satellite store, and the main gift shop was a few paces down the corridor. There was plenty of Memorial Cup championship gear available, but that wasn’t what caught my eye. Instead, it wound up being the employees working behind the cash registers. Some of them were wearing employee credentials reading, “Friend of Bob Boughner” on them.
One of the perks of being friends with the team president? A cushy job on the inside!
After making my purchase, I headed back to my seat for the remainder of intermission, which featured a mini-skate of the future’s future stars!
The mini-skate is a partnership between Tim Hortons and the Windsor Spitfires, allowing local youth teams of varying age and skill level to play a game during the first intermission of all Windsor home games. Tim Hortons will donate half of the minimum ticket allotment (25) to each participating team; in turn, the participating teams must sell the other half of the minimum. Teams that sell 100 or more tickets are eligible to receive autographs and photos with the Spitfires roster after the conclusion of the mini-game. Since I missed most of the intermission in the gift shop, I didn’t get to fully experience the spectacle on the ice. Being on a OHL rink during an intermission must be an exhilarating experience for the kids, not to mention the families watching them play!
Once the children cleared off the ice and the zambonis did their work, both London and Windsor returned to get the second period started.
Windsor got things rolling immediately after the puck dropped, getting the first few shots on goal. Raaymakers turned aside each of them, preserving the London lead. A tripping penalty by Windsor defenseman Austin McEneny would give London a chance to extend the lead on the ensuing power play. DiPietro faced two shots during the Windsor penalty kill and turned both aside to keep Windsor’s deficit at one. Both teams began trading chances throughout the period, with both goaltenders being tested with several shots as the period progressed. London left winger Tyler Rollo would finally best DiPietro, giving his team a two goal lead and putting more pressure on Windsor to curb London’s momentum.
Unfortunately for Windsor, a delay of game penalty committed by defenseman Thomas Stevenson would put London back on the power play, and London wasted little time in making Windsor pay for this latest infraction. Max Jones would put London up by three, making the hill even more difficult to climb for Windsor. London took its even larger lead to the locker room for the second intermission, leaving Windsor some time to collect themselves and attempt to find a solution to Raaymakers and the London defense.
No trip around WFCU Centre’s concourse during the second intermission, as the in-game crew conducted an arena-wide game of bingo. Each person in attendance received a bingo card and, just like in regular bingo, waited for their numbers to be called out and then displayed on the WFCU jumbotron. I’m not very lucky when it comes to bingo, and my card failed to yield a win during the intermission session.
London didn’t need much time to pad their lead once the third period started. Forty-three seconds, in fact, was all Cliff Pu needed to give London its fourth goal of the game. Windsor began to throw as much offense as they could towards Raaymakers, but the London goalie turned aside every shot he faced to preserve his ongoing shutout bid. Raaymakers would be further tested when Jones was assessed a tripping penalty. Windsor was unable to generate any offensive pressure against the London penalty kill, and London returned to full strength without incident. Both teams continued to trade shots and chances throughout the period.
With time winding down in the third, London center Liam Foudy would commit a slashing penalty, giving Windsor another chance to solve Raaymakers. In the wake of the infraction, Jones was assessed a ten minute misconduct. Windsor poured on the shots, but Raaymakers turned aside every attempt made by Windsor’s special teams. He and the rest of his London teammates would keep Windsor at bay for the remainder of the period and skated off the ice with a 4-0 victory over their archivals. Raaymakers was named first star of the game, while Pu and defenseman Evan Bouchard were named second and third star, respectively, sweeping the three star nominations for London.
London handled the Memorial Cup champion Windsor with ease. In a way, it was almost a little too easy if one just looks at the numbers. As this was supposed to be a big match between two rival clubs, the way that London skated off with a lopsided shutout was disappointing to see. I had hoped that Windsor would emerge with a better effort today, especially since it had lost by a wide margin two nights before in Sarnia. London certainly played with the intent of positioning themselves as a contender for the Memorial Cup, although they had a lot of hockey to play between the conclusion of this game and the eventual start of the CHL postseason.
With this being the final up close and personal look at the OHL, I have to say that I certainly had a wonderful time going around three different venues and seeing five different teams in action. Canadian junior hockey really is a treat to watch live, and I hope that I can get another opportunity to do so in the future.
Now, these players are about to find out later today that they very well may become the stars of tomorrow.
Destiny awaits in Dallas.
Thanks for Reading!
And many thanks to the Erie Otters, Flint Firebirds, London Knights, Sarnia Sting, and Windsor Spitfires for your hospitality and many wonderful memories!
(Thanks to eliteprospects.com, londonknights.com, ontariohockeyleague.com, and windsorspitfires.com for furnishing statistics, draft info, and other game notes used to compile this article!)