Emotions run high at Memorial Cup

Ryan Pyette, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 3:50 PM ET

RIMOUSKI, Que. — In a year drenched with tears that at times have been dried by joy, Warren Rychel found room for one more emotion.

“I got goosebumps watching the (Memorial Cup) opener,” the Windsor Spitfires GM and co-owner said. “It wasn’t even us playing. Kelowna and Rimouski. Seeing the atmosphere, all the excitement of the fans in the building (the Colisee), it finally hit me.

“We’re here. We’re really at the Memorial Cup.

“You get so busy planning everything, sometimes you forget but I will take time to enjoy this week.”

In his heart, there are two important people missing.

One is former Windsor captain Mickey Renaud, who died suddenly from a heart condition in February, 2008.

“We still have his sweater hanging in the dressing room,” Rychel said. “We had it on the ice for the team picture when we won the Ontario championship. We wear the No. 18 patches. He’s with us. He’s helping us from above.”

The other is Rychel’s younger brother Andrew, who passed away in March during a fire at home right before the Spitfires began their playoff run.

“The guys were very good to me during that time,” Rychel said. “They knew what we were going through, how tough it was for our family.”

Tragedy and triumph have become intertwined.

Three years into the ownership group of Rychel, Bob Boughner and Peter Dobrich, Windsor’s turnaround has been inspiring.

But it has also been a roller coaster.

“Our first year (in 2006-07), we weren’t very good,” Rychel said. “I give a lot of credit to Bougs (Boughner, the club’s head coach). We all knew it wasn’t going to be pretty. We didn’t win very many (just 18 time). Bob probably could’ve played one more year in the NHL but he went behind our bench instead.”

That bad first season led to high draft picks Taylor Hall and Ryan Ellis. The Spitfires rapidly improved last year. Then, they suffered the devastation of losing their captain.

“We won 10 in a row after Mickey died,” Rychel said. “Then, we ran into (Steve) Stamkos (and the Sarnia Sting) in the first round of the playoffs. That was disappointing. We came out this year and went 12-1. We put everyone on notice. We raised the bar.

“We made the trades (adding Memorial Cup veterans Scott Timmins, Ben Shutron and goalie Josh Unice). We got past John Tavares and the London Knights with all five games in overtime. We got past Cody Hodgson in Brampton. Great player.”

Now, Boughner is in the running for a second straight Canadian Hockey League coach of the year. Rychel was the OHL’s executive of the year.

A half decade ago, he couldn’t see any of this coming. The one-time Toronto Maple Leafs toughie was employed by the Phoenix Coyotes as a scout.

“I needed a job,” Rychel said. “I was Wayne Gretzky’s friend and he gave me a spot in the Phoenix scouting department. That experience was so valuable. Try to be an OHL GM without a scouting background. You can’t.”

Rychel went to the 2005 Memorial Cup in London and saw what the Hunter brothers had built.

He had the blueprint. The dream of ownership blossomed.

He targeted his hometown club.

“I saw what London did — hands-on owners,” he said. “GM and coach. They had new arena. John Labatt Centre in London. We got one (this year). WFCU Centre in Windsor. The year of the NHL lockout (2004-05), we started looking for a team. We weren’t sure for a while if the old Windsor owner (Steve Riolo) was going to sell.”

His old team Phoenix is in flux.

The Spitfires brand has been re-energized.

The winding path has quickly led to Rimouski.

There’s more in store for the next few years.

“It may seem like it was some master plan,” Rychel said. “but I believe someone’s taking care of me upstairs.”

More likely, it’s a pair looking out over him from above.


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