Whalers or Spirit could spoil OHL's dream matchup

RYAN PYETTE

, Last Updated: 9:28 AM ET

There are two guys left who can still ruin the OHL's Clash of the Titans.

Since the league's trade deadline in January, the 57-win Windsor Spitfires and loaded-up London Knights have been heading on a Western Conference final collision course.

But first things first.

The Spits must sink Mike Vellucci's Plymouth Whalers and the Knights have to slice through Todd Watson's Saginaw Spirit in the second round starting tomorrow.

Not long ago, Vellucci and Watson stood 10 feet apart on the same Plymouth bench. In 2007 when the Whale was mighty, the pair patrolled the OHL's most penalized team to the league title and a berth in the Memorial Cup at Vancouver.

Those Whalers came in waves. They were big, experienced and mean, taking their best shots and daring teams to beat them on the power play.

Not even London -- with Sam Gagner, Pat Kane and Sergei Kostitsyn -- could do it.

"It would be nice to have guys like (Columbus tough guy) Jared Boll and (Dallas rising star) James Neal on the forecheck again," Spirit GM and head coach Todd Watson said. "Here, we're trying to play the game the same way. Aggressive. Get after the puck. If a player wants to work hard, I have all the time in the world for them and if they don't ..."

Well, they won't be in Saginaw for the long term.

But "long term" is exactly what Spirit owner Dick Garber and team president Craig Goslin were looking for as they watched Watson with the Whalers and his solid Compuware roots.

They already had the flash. Goslin won two OHL executive-of-the-year awards for his marketing skills. He married the club to TV's Stephen Colbert Report and the Spirit earned nightly mentions as the comedian's favourite sports team.

"We've talked to the show producer and they couldn't do anything this year because they were so wrapped up in the U.S. election," Goslin said, "but that relationship is still there. Steagle (their Colbert-based eagle mascot) is still there and we have another one in the works.

"People who didn't know what the OHL was got to see that. It got us world-wide attention and that was good for the league."

But the club still needed some stability.

After the move from North Bay in 2002, the Spirit ground through four coaches in six years, the GM title traded hands like a hot potato and the team won a grand total of two playoff games.

Two years under Watson, they've finally captured a playoff series.

But originally, the coach wasn't all that primed about leaving Plymouth.

"After the Memorial Cup, Mike (Vellucci) told me about the future plans of the organization and my place in it and I liked what I was hearing," he said. "I'm married with four young kids in school so it's a big thing to move. But after meeting Dick Garber and Craig Goslin, they're such great people and have so much excitement for the team. I wanted to go to work for them and try to help improve this club."

He left and Vellucci stepped down as coach while retaining the GM role. This season, the Whalers limped out of the gate under Greg Stefan, Vellucci replaced him and the team surged into a playoff spot.

"I was with Plymouth and (owner) Compuware for a long time and I loved being the go-between there," Watson said. "As a coach, I'm emotional and I'm not an in-between kind of guy. I'm going to say what I believe in and start and end there."

So far, the Spirit brass has bought in.

"You look at the Brian Kilreas of our league and the Hunters in London and what they've done in Windsor," Goslin said. "You have to find the right people and I think we have that kind of guy in Todd Watson. We don't pretend to know everything but we like the way our future is set up.

"We're watching and learning and trying to get better."

And interfere, if possible, with that dream Windsor-London matchup.

RYAN.PYETTE@SUNMEDIA.CA


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