WINDSOR, Ont. — The Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires returned home to a hero’s welcome and a “parade of champions” celebrated by thousands of adoring fans in the city’s core.
The Spitfires became the first team since the 1994-95 Kamloops Blazers to win their second straight Canadian Hockey League title with a 9-1 rout of the Brandon Wheat Kings on Sunday. Windsor, which made history last spring by becoming the first team ever to win the title after dropping the first two games of the event, took a decidedly different road to the title this time around, finishing the season on a 12-game winning streak, including four straight wins in the Memorial Cup.
Riding two to a car, players rode down the Ouellette Avenue parade route before joining fans for a rally at Dieppe Gardens, located on the bank of the Detroit River.
The celebration was a welcome change for a border town that’s seen better days. A blue-collar city with 200,000 residents, Windsor has the highest unemployment rate in Canada and the local economy is ravaged by uncertainty in the auto industry, the region’s largest employer.
But the Spitfires continue to rule major junior hockey in Canada and that is all that seemed to matter on Monday.
Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis was thrilled with the reception the Spitfires received.
“We had 25,000 people in the streets to welcome home the Spits,” he said. “That is an incredible number and everyone has been very enthusiastic and well-behaved. The partying started last night and it hasn’t stopped.
“I think the biggest reason the team is receiving so much affection in our community is because the Spitfires are so involved in our community. It’s a win-win situation, and there aren’t many bigger wins than back to back Memorial Cups.”
He then paused for a moment before speculating on what the future may hold.
“We might not have been awarded the Memorial Cup tournament next year,” Francis said. “So I think the Spitfires should just go out and win it for the third straight time and bring it back to Windsor.”
The importance of the team’s accomplishment to the city of Windsor was not lost on the players, including captain Harry Young.
“Being a kid from Windsor, I grew up watching the Spitfires so to be a part of two national championship teams is amazing,” he said. “And to have so many friends and family members sharing today and being with us the entire season makes everything even more special.”
Young felt his teammates definitely took notice of how the city rallied around the Spitfires.
“My father works for General Motors here in town and everyone has been talking up the Spits for months,” said the New Jersey Devils’ prospect. “I’m just thrilled that we have been able to give the people in our community something to stand up and cheer for when times are so tough.”
The GM transmission plant in Windsor is closing next month. The GM trim plant closed years ago on the city’s east end and sat shuttered before being demolished last year, just months after the Spitfires’ new home, the Windsor Family Credit Union Centre, opened nearby.
Star winger Taylor Hall, who on Sunday became the first player ever to win two consecutive Memorial Cup MVP honours, took time to reflect on his career with the Spitfires.
“I’ve been blessed to play for such a great organization and the fan support from the first day I arrived in Windsor has been amazing,” he said. “This is a great city and everyone on the street has been so supportive for all of my seasons here.”
Hall is expected to be a top pick in the 2010 NHL entry draft and it’s likely his days with the Spitfires are over. But whatever lies ahead in Hall’s hockey career, Windsor will be a part of it.
“I will never forget the time I’ve had playing for these coaches and in front of these fans,” Hall said. “Winning the championship this year might even be more special than last year because it’s so hard to do it twice in a row. It’s such a great way to end your season.”