Why the Windsor Spitfires are hockey's most inspirational story

Is there a more inspiring and satisfying hockey story this season than the Ontario Hockey League's Windsor Spitfires winning the Memorial Cup yesterday over the Kelowna Rockets? We're talking the stuff of sports fables; a collision of storylines, challenges and triumphs that's one C-list-actor-as-coach away from being a terrific TV movie.

Consider this:

• It was Windsor's first Memorial Cup victory in the team's 34-year history, as the Spitfires were crowned kings of Canadian major junior hockey.

Following an OHL season of domination, they entered the four-team tournament as the favorites before losing their first two games and needing a four-game winning streak to capture the title. The championship clincher in Rimouski, Que., saw them score on their first three shots against the Rockets.

• Star prospect Taylor Hall, tournament MVP, lost control of his game after Pat Quinn made him the final cut for the Canadian team at world juniors. He rediscovered it at the right time.

• Bob Boughner is their head coach and was named CHL coach of the year. Again: The Boogieman is coach of the year. (And if they ever get around to casting that C-list actor, we're going with the dude from "Monk" for Boughner.)

The Memorial Cup didn't break in half this time. Always a good thing.

• Oh, and there's also this stuff about dedicating their season to a fallen teammate and lifting the spirits of a community decimated by the economy.

In all seriousness: You'll not find a story more representative of what sports are supposed to mean to a community than the Spitfires' Cup win.

Please recall the tragedy of Mickey Renaud, the Spitfires' captain and a Calgary Flames prospect, who collapsed and died at his home in Feb. 2008 at age 19. Assistant Coach Warren Rychel's reaction still stings to this day: "Words alone cannot describe our pain at this time."

The team paid tribute to Renaud in its first game after his death, as was vividly chronicled by Gare Joyce in an ESPN piece. But the tributes didn't end that night, as the Spitfires posed in their 2008-09 team photo with a large image of Renaud and posed with his jersey after winning the OHL title.

At the Memorial Cup, his spirit lived on, as the Globe & Mail reported in its summary:

When the coaches and players leapt over the boards as the final seconds ticked off, assistant coach Mark Turner carried Renaud's No. 18 sweater into the wild celebration.

"I think he's definitely here in spirit," Windsor forward Eric Wellwood said. "We dedicated this season to him and this was as much for him and his family as it was for us and the city of Windsor."

About that city: Windsor has been devastated by the recession and its effects on the auto industry. The blog Stimuli for the Birds reported that the unemployment rate for the city was at 13.8 percent, and that some homes were actually selling for lower than the cost of the cars its plants help produce. To kick a little more sand in the city's face, there's a month-long strike by municipal workers that has cancelled garbage pickup and left citizens to patrol the streets in an effort to clean them. Yuck.

The plight of Windsor helped fuel the Spitfires' title run. As Hall told the Whig Standard: "If we can provide a couple of hours where people can come to a game and rest their minds, maybe find a little bit of solace, if we can do that it's great."

The fans found more than solace yesterday, as the Windsor Star reported on widespread celebrations about the beleaguered town:

Over at Dirty Jerseys Sports Grill on Tecumseh Road East, the roar of the fans was earsplitting and heartwarming as the seconds wound down off the clock and televisions showed the Spits mobbing goalie Andrew Engelage on the ice.

"It feels awesome to see them come this far and to be a part of it all is just amazing," said Tiffany Owen, 20, wearing a white Renaud jersey autographed by members of the championship squad. "It's brought everything up around here and everyone has been able to get excited about it. It's one good thing that we've got going for the city."

For so many of us, sports have been sullied by so many ills: competitive imbalance, greed, drugs, ego ... who has time anymore to list them all, right? Their sum total adds up to a regretful disconnect between fans, athletes and the Leagues that exist to serve them.

The Spits are a reminder that despite all of that, sports can still have a transformative effect on a community. Through overcoming the odds. Through making history. Through inspirational tales and heartfelt tributes to fallen friends.

There just isn't enough escapism in sports anymore. But it's moments like this that remind us there can be; when a city in the dumps is turned into a symphony of honking horns and joyous voices by virtue of a single hockey game and the hometown heroes winning it.

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