Windsor Spitfires stay positive in negative light

The former OHL-champion Windsor Spitfires are fighting to climb back to the top after a fall from grace both on and off the ice.

Team tries to bounce back from OHL fines, penalities and the arrest of Ben Johnson

The Windsor Spitfires pose with the Memorial Cup after defeating the Brandon Wheat Kings in Brandon, Manitoba on May 23, 2010. Frank Gunn/Canadian Press (The Canadian Press)

For two years, from 2008 through 2010, the Windsor Spitfires were magical, almost untouchable. They were, when all was said and done, junior hockey's best team.

With star players like Taylor Hall and Ryan Ellis the Spits seemed unbeatable.

The Spits won consecutive Memorial Cups in 2009 and 2010.

When teams win, other players want to be part of it.

Brady Vail joined the Spitfires the year after the second national championship. He's 19 now, and beginning his fourth year with the Spits.

"They've had a winning tradition here ever since the new ownership took over," he said of an ownership group that includes former NHLers Warren Rychel and Bob Boughner. 

"I saw the DVD's of the Memorial Cups and how everything happened and how great the fans were. This town, everything, it was kind of a no-brainer. I had to come here."

When Vail joined the team, it also played a new arena and sellouts every night.

Windsor Spitfires goaltender Andrew Engelage plays it cool as he is swarmed by fans May 26, 2009 in Windsor. Thousands of Windsor Spitfires fans honoured the teams' first Memorial Cup win ever with a parade along Lauzon Road in Windsor. Sarah Fraleigh/Canadian Press (The Canadian Press)

But in the last three years, the Spitfires have been on a steady decline. 

In their conference, they have finished fourth, eighth and ninth - out of the playoffs all together - in each of the last three seasons.

Head coach Bob Boughner wants to stop his team's decline. 

"Last year was a bit of a disappointing season for most of us involved in this organization," he said "We have a lot of excuses, we have a lot of reasons why ; a lot of injuries, a lot of other things. But no one wants to hear that. We want to talk about getting this team into the playoffs."

Fines, suspensions, arrests

Trouble for the team hasn't been limited to the ice.

An investigation by the OHL found the Spits had violated the league's player benefit and recruitment rules. Just what they did remains unclear, but what the OHL did is dramatic.

The league slapped the Spits with a $250,000 fine and stripped them of four draft picks.

Windsor Spitfires head coach Bob Boughner kisses the Memorial Cup after defeating Kelowna Rockets 4-1 in Rimouski, Que. on May 24, 2009. The team won in 2010, too, but has since faced turmoil. (The Canadian Press)

Boughner said the team had its work cut out for it at the draft, where the Spits didn't have a first-round pick.

"We had to dig in and really concentrate. We really spent a lot of time and went the extra mile and tried to convince Ryan Moore, who was our first pick in the second round.," Boughner said. "We thought all along he was going to be a first-round pick. We had that whole college-versus-OHL fight to get through, but we feel we got a first round pick in Ryan Moore, so if everything pans out like it should we're not going to get hit so hard this year."

Despite being penalized in the next two drafts, the head coach is confident but admits more deals will have to be made at the trade deadline.

I don't think it's going to hurt us as much as everybody thinks.- Bob Boughner, Windsor Spitfires coach

"That's when it's going to be decision time, at the deadline. How good are we? Do we have a chance to go deep into the playoffs, or are we going to have to trade a couple of veterans to get some of those picks back," Boughner said. "It's unfortunate that we're in that situation, but with our staff, both coaching and scouting and our new ownership group. I'm not saying we're not going to miss a beat, but I don't think it's going hurt as much as everybody thinks."

Not long after the Spitfires were fined by the league, they took another serious blow. 

Player Ben Johnson was charged with two counts of sexual assault for an incident alleged to have occurred at a downtown Windsor bar.

Johnson was underage at the time. 

"I can't really make too many comments about that, other than ... we'll let that whole proceeding take care of itself," Boughner said. "Ben's a part of our hockey team and I'm not the judge or the jury, the defence or the prosecutor. I'm a hockey coach and we'll let those professionals take care of that. 

"I've known Ben for a long time and I know what he brings to our team."

Image tarnished?

Boughner admitted "for some people" Johnson's arrest may affect the image of the team.

Boughner may not want to discuss the specifics of the case, but he knows it reflects badly on the organization and on him. He's both the coach and the majority owner. 

"I think about all the stuff that's going on. The rumours, its almost like the tabloids with the stuff that's going on around the city and how it affects everybody, but at the end of the day I knew what I was getting into," he said. "I've been around hockey my whole life and I've seen the good times, I've seen the bad times. At the end of the day ,I'm still very proud of what we've done for the city and what we've built here and the product we try to put out there for entertainment value every night. 

"It's was so long before we won. We won, and now expectations have turned in this city now. They want to see a proven product on the ice every night and it's our job to try to get back to where we need to be."

The Spitfires wanted to treat their fans to something really big next spring. They made a bid to host the Memorial Cup.

But they lost that bid to London. Perhaps the OHL couldn't bring itself to award the biggest tournament in junior hockey to a team that's showing up in the media for all the wrong reasons.

And the image problems go beyond the league. Boughner knows there are two very important groups of people he is also trying to please - season ticket holders and advertisers.  

Some of those have jumped off the bandwagon, but Boughner is reluctant to chalk that up to image problems.

Everybody wants to be with a winner.- Bob Boughner, Windsor Spitfires coach

"It's a cycle. Every year you lose a couple and you gain a couple, and everybody wants to be with a winner," he said. 

Despite their problems, the Spitfires continue to have among the highest attendance in the Ontario Hockey League. Although, that number has been dropping for the past three years. There are 500 fewer fans showing up for each game, on average. That adds up to more than $10,000 dollars per game in ticket sales alone.

"One thing about Windsor, is we have real loyal, loyal base of both fans and customers and advertisers and they've stuck by us," Boughner said. "I think we don't give the city enough credit or the region enough credit to understand that these are 16-year-old kids. They're teenagers and you put 25 teenagers in the same room and everybody who has their own kids, they know what they go through.  This is what happens. This is life. This isn't just hockey, this is life."


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