Saginaw geared for run at OHL title

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 12:16 PM ET

Patrick McNeill and Garrett Sinfield are grizzled OHL veterans, but they're about to experience something new with the Saginaw Spirit this season -- expectations.

For the first time since packing up from North Bay and landing in Michigan five years ago, the Spirit are touted as an OHL title contender. It's a weight Sinfield has watched his hometown London Knights bear the last few seasons, but totally foreign for him and his teammates.

"It's nice in a way because it might put the spotlight on this team and put more season ticket holders in the seats -- even though we've done all right with that the past few years," the six-foot-three, 205-pound defenceman said.

"But all that stuff is just talk in the end. We have a lot of leaders on this team and we know we have to prove on the ice every night that we're worthy of being where everybody says we should be."

McNeill, a 19-year-old from Strathroy who has every shot at being the best offensive defenceman in the OHL this year, is looking forward to the challenge of living among the league's elite teams.

He's the captain and the team's major link to the community, a role that disappears to a large degree during the summer months.

"Nobody on the team lives in Saginaw in the offseason," he said. "It's one of those places that isn't close for most of the guys. Everybody goes home. We have a golf tournament every year but most of the promotional stuff happens during the season. For us to be mentioned among the better teams in the league, it's good for the fans and the organization, but our players know we haven't proven anything yet."

Saginaw had a quality team last year but GM and head coach Bob Mancini figured the Spirit were geared toward a championship run this season. The Spirit qualified for the playoffs last spring for the first time since the franchise moved but lost in the first round to Guelph.

McNeill, a Washington Capitals prospect and candidate for the Canadian world juniors after watching teammate Tom Pyatt win gold in Vancouver, relishes the chance to fit a ton of hockey into his plans.

"I'm trying not to think about it too much but it would be a dream to play (at the world juniors)," McNeill said.

"That was disappointing (when he hurt his shoulder a year-and-a-half ago and missed the chance to play with the Canadian under-18s in the Czech Republic) and I'd like another chance. I'm just looking forward to this year. We have a good group of guys and we feel good about this team."

Sinfield isn't sitting idly by and counting his blessings about playing for one of the teams to beat. He's currently taking online university courses through Western.

"I took a couple of courses last year at schools in Saginaw but I figured it would be a hassle to transfer the credits over to Canada if I end up back here," he said. "I'm not taking a lot right now but it helps get you up and keeps your mind busy during the season."


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