Tragedy to triumph for Spits

TERRY KOSHAN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:46 AM ET

Champions of the Ontario Hockey League for the first time in 21 years, the Windsor Spitfires don't think they have really done anything, yet.

"This is what we've been working all year for," star Spits defenceman Ryan Ellis said, referring to the Memorial Cup. "I think this is where we expected we would be at the end of the season."

The three Canadian Hockey League champs -- Windsor, the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League and the Drummondville Voltigeurs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League -- have travelled to Rimouski, Que., joining the host Oceanic for the 2009 Cup. The Spitfires and Voltigeurs are the favourites to meet in the final, though Kelowna won its third WHL title in seven years after battling through the top teams in the west.

The experiences of the Spitfires in the past 15 months, however, are unique. The club reeled last February with the death of captain Mickey Renaud, a tragedy that not only struck the hearts of the Spitfires but sent a wave of emotion across the country. Out of Renaud's passing came a togetherness among the Spitfires that might not have happened otherwise.

"That changed all of our lives, and it made all of us better people," Ellis said. "For the players, we became closer and we have been able to say anything to each other in the room. We've just known we would always be there for each other. Even with the new guys, they became part of the team quicker."

Losing games -- although the Spits did not lose many afterward -- wasn't so bad for a team that had lost its captain.

"What worse can happen than the death of a teammate?" general manager Warren Rychel said. "What is really going to bother us after going through something like that?"

And the Spits' depth of talent has been obvious for months. It's more impressive when it is remembered that the club expected to have forward Josh Bailey, who cracked the New York Islanders roster after he was taken ninth overall last June. But Bailey's absence didn't matter.

LOTS OF INK

Taylor Hall, Ellis and Russian rookie Andrei Loktionov get a lot of ink, as does goalie Andrew Engelage, but forwards Dale Mitchell, Greg Nemisz, Eric Wellwood and Adam Henrique and defencemen Ben Shutron and Mark Cundari have been as important. Keep in mind this team made John Tavares and Matt Duchene, the top two forwards available in the NHL draft next month, look fairly ordinary during the playoffs.

"We're a deep team, but I think our speed and tempo separated us," coach Bob Boughner said. "We were No. 1 all year and we're No. 1 going in. We got used to the pressure and it has brought out the best in us. Now, all of the focus is on Game 1 (against Drummondville on Saturday)."


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