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The Globe and Mail

Spitfires lift Memorial Cup, battered town's hopes

The Windsor Spitfires pose for a team picture after defeating the Kelowna Rockets 4-1 to win the Memorial Cup.

Ryan Remiorz

It's a city battered by cancelled shifts and layoffs at its auto plants, and where a bitter four-week strike by municipal workers has cancelled garbage collection. But Sunday night, Windsor was celebrating.

The city's junior hockey team, the Spitfires, hoisted the Memorial Cup - the country's national junior hockey trophy - above their heads after beating Kelowna 4-1 in Rimouski, Que., lifting spirits in Windsor's sports bars.

"We're a close-knit, tough town and we're really proud of our boys," said Ron Philpott, manager of the Beach Sports Bar and Grill, where Spitfires old enough to drink sometimes come for a beer. "They've become a bright spot in a town where we don't have a lot of bright spots."

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Mr. Philpott, 29, speaking over the din of about 120 cheering fans who watched the game on TV in his bar, said not only has the local economy been hit hard by the crisis facing the auto industry, but local pride has been hurt by the mess of a garbage strike.

"We're a proud town… It's kind of embarrassing, if I can use that word," he said, adding that his and other local businesses have gone out and cleaned the streets in front of their establishments themselves during the strike, while some residents have actually taken to patrolling neighbourhoods for garbage in their own pickup trucks.

Like Windsor's car assembly lines, the Spitfires had been all but counted out by some, dropping the first two games of the championship tournament. But Sunday night, they became the first team ever to take the Memorial Cup after losing its first two games - a gritty come-from-behind win that many hope Windsor as a whole can emulate.

The Spitfires' triumph, their first Memorial Cup, comes after adversity faced not just by the Windsor, but by the young team itself.

After a bad season in 2006-07, the Spitfires were ready for a run in the 2008 playoffs when on Feb. 18, 2008, captain Mickey Renaud died suddenly while eating breakfast, falling victim to a previously undetected genetic heart ailment.

Players celebrating their win on the ice held up jerseys bearing his name for the TV cameras.

Tom Grubb, 29, watched the end of the game at Spicoli's Barley Bin, and said the win was a welcome relief from the bad news that has hit Windsor in recent months.

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"With everything that's been going on, the garbage strike and all the layoffs, it's been great to see," Mr. Grubb, a Lake Erie fisherman who said he had avoided the effects of the downturn but knows many tool-and-die facilities in Windsor that have shut down.

Don MacPherson, manager of Cramdon's Tap and Eatery, said the shock waves of the layoffs at Chrysler and GM, teetering on the brink, have even been felt at sports bars like his.

"A lot of our regulars are laid off, unemployed…between Chrysler and GM being down right now, it's not a good thing for a lot of people," Mr. MacPherson said.

He said the Spitfires, despite being an Ontario Hockey League team, were a bigger draw yesterday than the Detroit Red Wings - often considered by Windsor fans as their home National Hockey League team - who yesterday beat the Chicago Blackhawks 6-1 in a playoff run seen as a similar ray of sunshine for the decimated auto sector's U.S. capital.

Many Windsor fans have nothing but praise for the team's new ownership group, which includes former NHLers with Windsor roots, and the team's new $71-million arena, where the Spitfires won the OHL championship earlier this month.

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