As the Hamilton Bulldogs celebrated Wednesday’s Ontario Hockey League title on Wednesday, several members of the Windsor Spitfires lingered to watch.
Sure, there was disappointment after falling in Game 7 of the team’s first appearance in the OHL final in over a decade, but forward Matthew Maggio wanted to remember the moment.
“I was sure to watch the celebration, take it in and use it as fuel coming back next year and I want everyone else to use it as fuel,” said Maggio, who is from Tecumseh and was in the stands watching the back-to -back Memorial Cup Windsor teams. “At the end of the day, it’s just going to make us stronger.”
While the Spitfires came up a game short of a title, there were a lot of positives to come out of the 2021-22 season and a lot of questioned answers for the team going forward.
With nearly 13,000 fans taking in the final two games of the championship series, Windsor fans once again showed they will support junior hockey in a big way.
“Unreal support, it was amazing,” Spitfires’ general manager Bill Bowler said. “The players love it, the coaches love it and it’s great for the whole organization.
“The ownership gives back all the time and to see fans and supporters respond made for an incredible atmosphere and the organization is thankful.”
To be fair, Windsor fans will always support a winning product. The club won a West Division title and Western Conference title for the first time since 2010 and making it to the second round marked the first time in 11 years the club had advanced out of the first round, which had been the longest drought in the league .
That being said, Bowler has consistently stated that he does not want to ride the boom-and-bust cycles the franchise has lived through in the past.
“My mandate, our goal, it to be relevant,” Bowler said. “This year, we were relevant and we don’t want to go through (long droughts).”
Next season might not match the 2021-22 season, which produced the fourth-best record in franchise history, but the club wants to be talking hockey in April on a consistent basis.
“I want our players to know they have a chance to win and our fans to know that the club has a chance to win,” Bowler said.
And Bowler backed up his words with his actions this season. While former general manager Warren Rachel was famous for the big, all-in deal, Bowler showed he could tweak a lineup to make it competitive without forfeiting assets for future success in the process.
The club went to Game 7 of the OHL final despite not getting Jean-Luc Foudy back for his final year of junior hockey with a COVID-19 loophole allowing the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche to play him in the American Hockey League.
Bowler went out got a solid stay-at-home defenseman in Nathan Ribau from Sudbury, along with a third-round draft pick, for Dylan Robinson.
I have added a solid faceoff man and penalty killer in Jacob Maillet, who can also chip in on offense, for a fifth-round draft pick.
Forward Alex Christopoulos, who tied for third on the team with 11 playoff goals, came over from North Bay for a fifth-round pick.
Goalie Matt Onuska, who posted a 31-9-3-1 record after coming over from London for a sixth-round pick, was a steal.
None of those deals will hurt the top end of Windsor’s draft board going forward or cost the team young talent like Ryan Abraham, Nicholas De Angelis or Ethan Miedema.
By contrast, Hamilton acquired overage defenseman Arber Xhekaj and forward Mason McTavish in separate deals that cost the club former first-round pick Alex Pharand, former second-round pick Jonathan Melee along with 11 future draft picks with four of those in the second round and five in the third round.
“Different players thrive in different situations and I don’t think we could have asked for more,” Bowler said. “You like a lot of players in their draft year and you can’t take them all, but different coaches use players different ways. You give kids different opportunities and they excel.”
With this being the longest the season has ever gone in OHL history, Bowler has worked to do before training camp opens in just over two months. Some Bowlers can control and some he’ll have to wait and see.
One will be what happens with first-year head coach Marc Savard, who has been tied to NHL jobs after a wildly successful season.
“It’s a lot of fun working with these guys,” Savard said of his season with the Spitifres. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. Yeah, I get a little intense at times, I think these guys can attest at times, but I love doing it and I love working with these kids.”
Bowler will have to decide if he wants to drop a player like Avval Baisov to make a selection in next month’s Canadian Hockey League Import Draft.
As well, there are roster decisions to make for the club’s three overage spots with Maggio, Michael Renwick, Onuska, Ribau, Xavier Medina and Josh Currie all eligible for one of those spots.
Three of them will have to move on along with Captain Will Cuylle, who is signed by the New York Rangers. The club will no doubt hold its breath to see what the Dallas Stars have planned for OHL’s most outstanding player Wyatt Johnston, who still has another year of eligibility remaining.
“(Wednesday) really put in my mind that I have unfinished business,” said Maggio, who was 15th in league scoring this season with 85 points in 66 games. “Winning would have been great, but it’s going to be a fun team (next season) and I want to be back and I know what it takes to go all the way.
“I’m going to put everything I’ve got into this summer. I owe it to the fans and the team to get us back (to the final) and be on the celebrating side of it.”
National team invites
Windsor Spitfires forward Wyatt Johnston and Ethan Miedema were selected by Hockey Canada on Thursday to attend national team camps.
Johnston will be in Calgary for the national junior team camp, which will run from July 23-27.
Johnston is one of eight players who were first-round NHL Draft picks to attend the camp of 44 players for the 2023 national junior team.
Miedema will be in Calgary from July 20-23 for a variety of on-ice sessions and off-ice sessions as 44 players compete for a spot to play for Canada at this year’s Hlinka Gretzky Cup, which is set for July 31 to Aug. 6in Red Deer, AB.
2022-23 season schedule
Sat. Oct. 1 – Sarnia at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Thur. Oct. 6 – Sudbury at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Sat. Oct. 8 – Windsor at Saginaw, 7:05 p.m.
Mon. Oct. 10 – Sault Ste. Marie at Windsor, 2:05 p.m.
Fri. Oct. 14 – Windsor at Sarnia, 7:05 p.m.
Sat. Oct. 15 – Windsor at Owen Sound, 7:30 p.m.
Thur. Oct. 20 – Saginaw at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Sat. Oct. 22 – Windsor at Flint, 7 p.m.
Sun. Oct. 23 – Niagara at Windsor, 4:05 p.m.
Thur. Oct. 27 – North Bay at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Fri. Oct. 28 – Windsor at Niagara, 7 p.m.
Sat. Oct. 29 – Windsor at Erie, 7 p.m.
Thur. Nov. 3 – Sarnia at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Sat. Nov. 5 – Windsor at Mississauga, 4 p.m.
Sun. Nov. 6 – Kingston at Windsor, 4:05 p.m.
Thur. Nov. 10 – Peterborough at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Sat. Nov. 12 – London at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Fri. Nov. 18 – Windsor at Sarnia, 7:05 p.m.
Sun. Nov. 20 – Windsor at Kitchener, 6 p.m.
Wed. Nov. 23 – Owen Sound at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Fri. Nov. 25 – Flint at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Sat. Nov. 26 – Windsor at Saginaw, 7:05 p.m.
Thur. Dec. 1 – Oshawa at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Fri. Dec. 2 – Windsor at Kitchener, 7:30 p.m.
Sat. Dec. 3 – Barrie at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Thur. Dec. 8 – Ottawa at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Fri. Dec. 9 – Windsor at Erie, 7 p.m.
Sat. Dec. 10 – Windsor at Hamilton, 4 p.m.
Thur. Dec. 15 – Erie at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Sat. Dec. 17 – Windsor at Owen Sound, 7:30 p.m.
Wed. Dec. 28 – Guelph at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Fri. Dec. 30 – Windsor at Guelph, 7:30 p.m.
Sat. Dec. 31 – Kitchener at Windsor, 2:05 p.m.
Wed. Jan. 4 – Saginaw at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Fri. Jan. 6 – Windsor at Sarnia, 7:05 p.m.
Sun. Jan. 8 – Flint at Windsor, 4:05 p.m.
Thur. Jan. 12 – Saginaw at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Sat. Jan. 14 – Windsor at Saginaw, 7:05 p.m.
Sun. Jan. 15 – Windsor at London, 2 p.m.
Thur. Jan. 19 – Erie at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Sat. Jan. 21 – Windsor at Barrie, 7:30 p.m.
Sun. Jan. 22 – Windsor at Oshawa, 6:05 p.m.
Thur. Jan. 26 – Windsor at North Bay, 7 p.m.
Fri. Jan. 27 – Windsor at Sudbury, 7:05 p.m.
Sun. Jan. 29 – Windsor at Sault Ste. Marie, 2:07 p.m.
Thur. Feb. 2 – Sault Ste. Marie at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Sat. Feb. 4 – Hamilton at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Sun. Feb. 5 – Owen Sound at Windsor, 7 p.m.
Wed. Feb. 8 – Windsor at Flint, 7 p.m.
Thur. Feb. 9 – Sault Ste. Marie at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Sat. Feb. 11 – Windsor at Saginaw, 7:05 p.m.
Thur. Feb. 16 – Flint at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Sat. Feb. 18 – Mississauga at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Mon. Feb. 20 – Windsor at London, 2 p.m.
Thur. Feb. 23 – Windsor at Peterborough, 7:05 p.m.
Fri. Feb. 24 – Windsor at Ottawa, 7 p.m.
Sun. Feb. 26 – Windsor at Kingston, 2 p.m.
Thur. Mar. 2 – London at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Fri. Mar. 3 – Windsor at Flint, 7 p.m.
Sat. Mar. 4 – Sarnia at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Fri. Mar. 10 – Windsor at Guelph, 7:30 p.m.
Sat. Mar. 11 – Kitchener at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Wed. Mar. 15 – Saginaw at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Fri. Mar. 17 – Windsor at Sault Ste. Marie, 7:07 p.m.
Sat. Mar. 18 – Windsor at Sault Ste. Marie, 7:07 p.m.
Wed. Mar. 22 – Guelph at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
Fri. Mar. 24 – Windsor at London, 7 p.m.
Sat. Mar. 25 – London at Windsor, 7:05 p.m.
(End of regular season)