Hockey helps hard-hit cities

RYAN PYETTE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:42 AM ET

The headlines are hard to take.

Doomsday for auto industry. Another car plant on the brink. Massive job loss. Bailouts, pickets and pension fights.

There hasn't been a ton to smile about in Detroit and Windsor.

Hockey, as it turns out, is helping.

"The only news you ever hear is bad," Windsor Spitfires forward Eric Wellwood said. "We're trying to provide an upside. Give people here something to rally behind, to cheer. You look at what's going on with the economy and we're one of the only good-news stories going right now. As a team, we understand what it means.

"Definitely, it's motivation."

The Spitfires are in the OHL final against Brampton. Windsor is favoured to reach the Memorial Cup for the first time in 21 years.

The Detroit Red Wings are chasing their second straight Stanley Cup.

The border cities may not be financial powerhouses these days. But right now, they're the centre of the hockey universe.

"It's nice to see both teams doing well and it's good for the area," veteran Red Wings forward Kris Draper said. "It hasn't been going too well economically around here for a while and we understand the sacrifices people have gone through to watch us play. I think we got caught up in that at the start of the playoffs last year. But you know what? Parades are free. When you see one million people come to downtown Detroit to celebrate the Stanley Cup like last last year, you realize the whole city is behind you no matter what.

"I was at the baseball game (Tigers-Yankees on Tuesday) and everyone was talking Red Wings. Windsor and southwestern Ontario, too. I know the Leafs have cut into our following there a little bit but I'm not too sure why."

Not at this time of year, they don't.

Before Duck-hunting this week against Anaheim, Draper paid his first visit Wednesday to the Spits' new WFCU Centre in Tecumseh for Game 1 of the OHL final.

Windsor GM and co-owner Warren Rychel was his first professional roommate in Moncton, N.B.

"He was a bossy roommate," Draper cracked. "Warren used me as his human remote control."

Now, Rychel uses the Red Wings as a model for the Windsor franchise he helped buy three years ago.

"I want us to be in a position to win every year just like Detroit does," he said. "They're the team everybody looks at. Kenny Holland has done a great job there. As a pro scout for five years (with the Phoenix Coyotes), I went to Joe Louis Arena all the time. We went to London during the (2005) Memorial Cup to see how the Hunters did it with the Knights.

"Me and Bob (Windsor coach and co-owner Bob Boughner) are Windsor guys. This is a blue-collar town. I worked at Green Giant for my dad. Bob worked at Chrysler. We know what kind of hockey Windsor fans want to see. Talented, hard-working, entertaining hockey."

There is an element of escape involved.

"It's medicine," said Scott Schneider, whose Spitfires booster club jammed a 56-seat bus for a Game 2 trip to Brampton. "For the four hours or so at the rink, you forget all the troubles and leave reality out there. This new (6,500-seat) centre is more than anyone hoped for. But there's a sentiment that it's too bad this year's team didn't finish out the final season at the old barn (Windsor Arena).

"After all those years, it deserved a team like this one."

The Spits are rewriting their history. The Red Wings are forever surrounded by it.

In a near-empty Joe Louis Arena, Mr. Hockey sat in a plush front-row seat behind goalie Chris Osgood and watched the defending Cup champs' morning skate.

Gordie Howe clutched a wispy black dog. He has named it after a famous Montreal Canadiens foe.

"Rocket," Howe deadpanned with a grin. "I got tired of hitting the real one."

There are many reasons why players stay with the same NHL team for a long time. No matter how much changes, Draper, Kirk Maltby, Nick Lidstrom, Osgood and Chris Chelios remain.

"You want a shot at it every year," Maltby said. "No, I wouldn't want to move away for money or because of the economic climate. I don't think guys would ever stop coming here. I've met so many great people in my time here. You look at Steve Yzerman never left and there's Mr. Hockey. It's the way you're treated and the people you're surrounded with."

"The Red Wings are a players' first organization," Draper echoed. "They take care of the Zetterbergs and Franzens and Datsyuks long term. They keep a core group, build around them and make it difficult to leave."

The juniors sense how special that system is.

"You look at Draper and Marian Hossa -- the Wings have players who take pay cuts so they can play there under the cap," said Wellwood, who grew up in nearby Oldcastle. "Now, we're not making any money in Windsor but it works the same way. This team had been built on the 1990 (birth year) draft. I was part of that so I've been around this team for three seasons now. You become a veteran and you want to help the younger guys feel the same way about the team that you do."

This was a Windsor club that had seen its share of grief. The Spitfires lost captain Mickey Renaud when he died suddenly from a heart ailment last year. Then, Rychel's younger brother Andrew died in a house fire last month.

They showed resolve in beating London in the Western Conference final. All five games went to overtime.

"I truly believe, in that London series, we had some help from upstairs," Rychel said.

Wellwood, who grew up going to Red Wings games with his older, NHL-playing brother Kyle, scored two sudden-death winners against the Knights, including the series clincher.

"I'm the biggest Wings bandwagon fan." Wellwood said. "I was there when they were winning the Cups. I'll be cheering for them to do it again except if they play Vancouver (in the Western Conference final). My brother's a Canuck and you can't go against blood."

The Wings have a catch, too, with Wellwood and Co.

"You want to see the Windsor boys do well," Maltby said, "but Brampton's goalie (Thomas) McCollum is our No. 1 pick so we'll be rooting for him, too."

ryan.pyette@sunmedia.ca


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