It’s amazing how fast a year flies by.
Led by All-Star goaltender Michael DiPietro, six members of the 2017 Mastercard Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires saw through an admirable 2017-18 title defence, reaching the OHL Playoffs after finishing sixth in the Western Conference with a young team.
While several members of the 2017 championship team graduated to the pro ranks, a number of others went different ways, joining other OHL clubs throughout the course of the season. They wore different jerseys and sometimes found themselves on opposite sides of an intense puck battle, but the memory of what unfolded in Windsor last May will always be something they share.
“No doubt about it,” said OHL Overage Player of the Year Aaron Luchuk of the Barrie Colts. “We’ll always have that in common regardless of where we play. There were some pretty long days in the lead-up to that event and we got through it together.
“As soon as we won that first game and kind of showed everyone that we were for real, I think all of us had full confidence in ourselves and that we could pull it off.”
While Luchuk joined the Barrie Colts, teammates Gabriel Vilardi and Sean Day helped guide the Kingston Frontenacs to their first appearance in the Eastern Conference Championship Series since 1993. A pair of towering Logans in 6-foot-6-plus Brown and Stanley along with overage veteran Austin McEneny donned Ranger blue, steering Kitchener to the Western Conference Championship Series where they suffered a crushing Game 7 double-overtime loss to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
After scoring the Mastercard Memorial Cup game-winning goal in a 4-3 championship triumph over the Erie Otters, Luchuk’s career continued trending in the right direction this past season as he signed an entry-level NHL contract with the Ottawa Senators and led the OHL with 115 points (50-65–115) in 68 games.
Similar to what the 2018 host Regina Pats are experiencing now, the Spitfires lost a hard-fought seven game first round series before a 44-day layoff that prepared them for competition. Coaches Rocky Thompson, Trevor Letowski and Jerrod Smith kept the players focused on the task at hand, equipping them to go 4-0 while outscoring their opponents 18-8 to become the 99th team to hoist the prestigious Memorial Cup trophy.
“I think there was belief in the group all along,” said current head coach Letowski who oversaw the OHL’s best penalty killing unit in over 20 years, statistically speaking. “In a short-term event like the Memorial Cup we felt that we were talented enough that, even if the going got tough, we wouldn’t be overwhelmed and that ended up being the case.”
No member of the 2017 Spitfires is back at the big dance this year, but last year’s experience of hoisting the Memorial Cup on home ice is one that will last a life time.
“Anyone that’s won a championship at a high level knows you can’t replicate that feeling and you’ll always remember the guys you did it with,” added Letowski. “I’ve been around this game for 25 years, played in the NHL and my favourite memory is still winning the World Juniors in 1997. That was over 20 years ago but it feels like yesterday.”
Like the 2012 Shawinigan Cataractes before them, the Spitfires can now also serve as an example for the host club tasked with following-up their tremendous success. For Luchuk, the approach is all about hard work, execution and buy-in throughout the lineup.
“I’m sure it’s a real big confidence boost for those guys in Regina to know it’s possible and to have seen it done less than a year ago,” he said. “I think they just have to stick to the plan their coaches have put in place and execute when opportunities arise.
“Like them, we got beat out in the first round and had two choices as a group. We could either put in the work and try and win a Memorial Cup, or fade away and forget it. We decided to stick with it and the end result made every second of hard work worth it.”
The host Regina Pats open the tournament on Friday when they take on the OHL champion Hamilton Bulldogs who make their debut at the national championship’s centennial celebration.
OHL champs in just their third season, the Bulldogs played to a 16-5 record in the 2018 OHL Playoffs, getting the best of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the Rogers OHL Championship Series to punch their ticket to Regina.
Be sure to catch Mastercard Memorial Cup action throughout the event on Sportsnet as RJ Broadhead and Sam Cosentino provide the call across the country. Friday’s contest gets underway at 8:00pm MT/10:00pm ET.
For full coverage of the 2018 Mastercard Memorial Cup visit mastercardmemorialcup.ca.