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Windsor Spitfires: Together forever

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BRANDON, Man. -- As Windsor Spitfires captain Harry Young received the Memorial Cup trophy from Canadian Hockey League president Dave Branch on Sunday evening, it marked the final exit on a journey started four years earlier by the veteran defenceman and many of his mates. Each player took turns hoisting the familiar piece of hardware after becoming only the eighth team in the long history of Canadian major junior hockey to successfully defend their MasterCard Memorial Cup title.

The D-word, as in dynasty, was seldom used by team staff during the year because their ownership group -- a superstitious bunch -- refused to look that far into the future despite having one of the best teams in the 60-team CHL. The ending was also moving because many of the same players that helped build the junior hockey powerhouse will now be graduating to the pro ranks. For Windsor general manager Warren Rychel, the final game meant having to say goodbye to the first group of players he drafted and built his team around.

"It’s emotional," said Rychel, who joined coach, co-owner and long-time friend Bob Boughner on the bench for the final seconds of a convincing 9-1 dismantling of the host Brandon Wheat Kings in the championship game. "I’m so proud of those guys, they’ve come a long way. It’s sad, but they came in as boys and now they’ve got some (NHL contract) money in their pockets and two Memorial Cups and they’re moving on as men."

The core group of players from the Spitfires’ back-to-back championship team came from Rychel’s first draft – players from the 1990 birth year (ask a hockey diehard about a player and the first thing you’ll hear is their birth year) - after Rychel, Boughner and Windsor businessman Peter Dobrich bought the team. The trio purchased a franchise that was in disarray and trying to move past a nasty hazing scandal and trying to land a new building to replace the dilapidated Windsor Arena. The team was trying to find their identity, like many of their newly drafted players. From that initial priority selection came defenceman Mark Cundari, centre Adam Henrique, and wingers Greg Nemisz, Eric Wellwood and Adam Wallace.

"It was their first draft, so they didn’t know what to expect and we didn’t know what to expect," Cundari said during Sunday’s post-game celebration. "They turned that organization into something from nothing by building around that core of 90s and put together back-to-back Memorial Cup runs."

This title defence was of the hugely impressive variety as the Spitfires reeled off four straight victories in Brandon, and steamrolled the Wheat Kings in front of a stunned full house at Westman Place. After falling behind 3-0 in the OHL Western Conference final against the Kitchener Rangers, Windsor went on a brilliant run of 12 straight victories that ended with Sunday’s never-in-doubt triumph against a Wheat Kings team that was outscored 18-4 by the Ontario champions in two tournament games.

"Knowing that this was our last game and now that it’s over I’m sure that a lot of guys are sad too," Wellwood, standing on the ice surrounded by jubilant teammates, members of the Windsor organization and family members, said with a championship ball cap perched on his head.

They’ve come a long way from their first meeting in May 2006 at Tecumseh Arena, located in a Windsor suburb, were the players had their first mini-camp together as teammates.

"Mark (Cundari) came in with his baggy clothes and his crazy hair, I was just completely out of shape and Eric (Wellwood) weighed 120 pounds - Adam (Henrique) came in with blonde highlights," says Nemisz, remembering the motley crew that showed up at the rink.

Young, a Tecumseh native, joined the team a few months later via a trade with the Guleph Storm, while the other ‘90-borns -- backup goaltender Troy Passingham and winger James Woodcroft-- made the team as walk-ons after free-agent invites to camp.

That first season together the team struggled mightily finishing with an 18-43-0-7 record, missing the playoffs and finishing 19th in the 20-team OHL. And while there was little to celebrate that season, the players now fondly remember those times as character-building exercises, never forgetting the lows to make more of the highs.

"There was one time we got three (wins) in a row and that was the highlight of the season," Wellwood recalled of that first year. "So we cherished that for the whole summer."

And while Boughner and Rychel admit they often bickered over the running of the team in their rookie season as owners, coach and GM, they always tried to temper the defeats with fun and a few shenanigans. According to Cundari, Rychel had promised to eat a live goldfish if the team won a big three-game road trip during that dismal first year.

"We bought the goldfish and we kept it the entire road trip, we won the three games but he never ate it," Cundari said. "So we just shut it down for the rest of the season after that."

"Maybe if he had eaten the goldfish we would have won five in a row," chimed in Wellwood, scoring the punch line from the defenceman’s nice setup.

The season of failure allowed Windsor to snag premier talents in star winger Taylor Hall with the second overall pick and all-star defenceman Ryan Ellis in the second round of the 2007 OHL draft.

Now they are a fun group, having spent most of the week in Brandon partaking in team-building exercises they would have most likely done anyway because they all genuinely like each other. Bowling, mini-golf, and what Hall – who was the tournament MVP for the second straight time and will most likely be playing in the National Hockey League for either the Edmonton Oilers or Boston Bruins come October - described as a "16-man luge" down the waterslide at the team’s hotel.

"We’re all the best of friends and we have been for the past four years," Henrique said. "(Winning) makes it that much more special. Trades always happen and you hate to see guys go, but we were lucky enough to keep all the guys together and go the full four years together and we’ve had a lot of fun."

There has also been untold heartache for the Spitfires. On Feb. 18, 2008 then-team captain Mickey Renaud, 19, collapsed and died at his family’s home in Tecumseh, after suffering from an undiagnosed heart ailment. The city and team were devastated by Renaud’s death and the Spitfires have since retired their captain’s number and the street leading into the Windsor Family Credit Union Arena is named "Mickey Renaud Way".

Wellwood agreed the tragedy brought them closer together.

"We’ve come together right from Day 1 and we’ve been through some up and downs – not only in hockey but in life as well with the passing of our captain (Mickey Renaud) two years ago and I think that really solidified us as a core group," said the Philadelphia Flyers draft pick, whose brother, Vancouver Canucks forward Kyle Wellwood, was in the stands watching Sunday night. "We had to come together just as people, and ever since then we’ve become stronger."

With their junior careers winding down, the realization that this is the end for this special group that has been through everything imaginable – and then some – over the course of their young hockey lives.

"The other summers we all knew we were coming back and going to see each other again," Wellwood said. "So it’ll be a little different for sure this time, but going into our next few years of pro hockey and playing against each other hopefully we’ll see each other in the summers and we’ll still keep in touch."

Cundari, a St. Louis Blues prospect, says that players will be forever linked by what they’ve been through in capturing not one, but two of what many folks in the hockey world believe is the toughest championship to win because players have such a short window at the major junior level.

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"I know they’re going to be there through the thick and the thin, not matter where we go or what team we play for we’re only going to be a phone call away."