Before they made their second straight trip to the Memorial Cup, and before they became the envy of Canadian junior hockey for their roster stocked with NHL prospects, the Windsor Spitfires were a team struggling with a serious image problem.
They were thrust into a nationally televised scandal five years ago when a camera caught a veteran player pounding on a 16-year-old rookie in practice. The fight stemmed from a hazing incident on the team bus, and the ugly episode cost the Spitfires head coach his job.
"Four years ago, when you looked at Windsor," Spitfires forward Dale Mitchell said, "it was not a place you wanted to play."
That perception began to change the following season, after a group including former NHL players Bob Boughner and Warren Rychel bought the team. Now, four years later, they will graduate their first class of draftees after playing to defend their Memorial Cup title on Sunday.
'They do everything first-class. They treat it like an NHL team, and they want to get NHL results.' —Spitfires captain Harry Young
The Spitfires have been a primary focus all week at the national junior championship in Brandon, Man., with NHL-bound stars such as winger Taylor Hall and defenceman Ryan Ellis bathed in the spotlight of media attention.
"If we can do what we're supposed to do, this could be memorable for them," Rychel said of his players. "This could go down as one of the best teams ever."
It might also be remembered as one of the most remarkable public relations turnarounds of a junior hockey franchise.
Five years ago, the video of the fight logged thousands of views on YouTube and led to a feature in the U.S.-based publication, ESPN The Magazine. The story was that the veteran players had forced the rookies to strip down in the team bus and huddle inside the locked bathroom, an act Nigerian-born, Russian-raised rookie Akim Aliu refused to perform.
Spitfires veteran Steve Downie took exception and was alleged to have cross-checked Aliu in the mouth, reportedly knocking out three teeth and triggering the on-ice fight. Coach Moe Mantha was eventually fired, and both players were traded.
Owners 'cleaned it up'
One of the first things Boughner and Rychel did when they assumed control the next year was to change the culture around the team.
"They cleaned it up," said Windsor forward Greg Nemisz, their first draft pick.
"What they've done now, it's just amazing," Mitchell said. "And it's good not only for the team but for the city, as well."
The Spitfires won the first Memorial Cup in franchise history last year, and showed their mettle in the OHL playoffs this year. Windsor dropped the first three games of its third-round best-of-seven series with the Kitchener Rangers, only to rally to four straight wins and an eventual league title.
They have not lost since.
"You can see why we're winning, why the turnaround happened," Spitfires captain Harry Young said. "They do everything first-class. They treat it like an NHL team, and they want to get NHL results."
Several of the players Boughner and Rychel used to reverse the franchise's fortunes are set to play the final game of their junior careers in Sunday's title game.
Hall could be the first overall pick in next month's NHL entry draft in Los Angeles, and is not expected to return next season. Overage forwards such as Young, Mitchell, Scott Timmins and Eric Wellwood will also be moving on.
"Whenever you talk to any pro guys … they always warn you that the junior years go by too quick — enjoy them while you're there," Young said.
"Everybody here is having fun."