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Windsor Spitfires Kenny Ryan celebrates his goal during third period Memorial Cup hockey action against the Calgary Hitmen in Brandon, Manitoba on Monday May 17, 2010.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn (Frank Gunn)
Windsor Spitfires Kenny Ryan celebrates his goal during third period Memorial Cup hockey action against the Calgary Hitmen in Brandon, Manitoba on Monday May 17, 2010.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn (Frank Gunn)

Allan Maki

Spitfires stay on target Add to ...

The boy would sit with his father in the old Windsor Arena and say he was going to be there one day, on the ice playing major junior hockey in his hometown. "You just watch me, dad."

And sure enough it happened. Warren Rychel made it to Windsor as an OHL opponent, even found his way to the NHL.

So when the son called his father four years ago, and said he was going to spend roughly $6-million to buy the Windsor Spitfires, Stan Rychel knew better than to shrug it off. Deep down, he understood his son and business buddy Bob Boughner, another local hockey product, were exactly what the ailing Spitfires needed.

"The last owner [construction magnate Steve Riolo]had the right intentions but just because you know drywall doesn't mean you know hockey," Rychel says. "Bob and Warren can't hang a picture between the two of them. But they know hockey. They sure do."

Who would have believed it? Two professional vagabonds who combined to play for 10 NHL teams and record 2,804 career penalty minutes, and they're the masterminds behind the rebirth of the Spitfires? What else should we believe - that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was once a stand-up comic?

With Warren Rychel as vice-president and general manager, Boughner as president and head coach, and fellow owner Peter Dobrich as treasurer, the Spitfires are poised to become the first team to snare back-to-back Memorial Cup titles since the 1994 and 1995 Kamloops Blazers. All they have to do is win Sunday's final - a doable task given how the Spitfires blitzed both the Calgary Hitmen and Brandon Wheat Wings in tournament play - and once again a beleaguered city with the nation's highest unemployment rate will be beaming with delight, the centre of the Canadian Hockey League universe.

And yes, it's largely because of what Rychel and Boughner have done as owners and executives.

"We had a plan. We thought this would be the year we'd be in the Memorial Cup because we'd have four guys who were 19 years old," says Rychel, a natural talker and big thinker. "But we ended up being ahead of schedule and winning last year. … It's happened real quick."

Much of what happened to the Spitfires under their previous ownership was middling to wretched. The team was a perennial flat tire; good players wanted no part of Windsor. Then came the nasty practice punch-up between teammates Steve Downie and Akim Aliu, caught on camera and shown cross-country. The cause of the fight was even more disturbing - Aliu's refusal to take part in a hazing ritual aboard a team bus.

When news of the hazing broke, the Spitfires were in flames. Then-head coach Moe Mantha, who along with Riolo and the coaching staff, was on the bus but knew nothing of the hazing. He wasn't on the ice when Downie and Aliu started fighting. No matter. Mantha was made the fall guy and fired; Downie and Aliu were both traded.

It was around then that Rychel and Boughner saw what the Hunter brothers - Dale and Mark - were doing with the London Knights, what the Ciccarelli brothers - Rob, Larry and Dino - had done with the Sarnia Sting, and made their pitch to buy the Windsor team.

Riolo refused until he got a letter from Boughner saying it was the right time "to pass the torch to Windsor guys. That the team would be in very good hands with hockey guys," Boughner says. "He called as soon as he got the letter."

Under the aspiring tandem of two guys who first met when they were in their late teens, the new-look Spitfires unloaded as many of their older players as they could and won only 18 games. The second season was rocked by the loss of captain Mickey Renaud, who collapsed at home and died from a previously undetected heart condition. Somehow, the team finished with 45 wins that year, but the players' hearts weren't in it.

Year 3 was the charm. With Rychel having supplied the players (winger Taylor Hall being the most dynamic), and Boughner comfortable behind the bench, the Spitfires settled into a new arena, won 57 games and celebrated their first Memorial Cup win in the 33-year history of the franchise. The city, trapped between an economic downturn and auto-industry upheaval, rejoiced.

"I was part of it before and now," long-time assistant coach D.J. Smith says. "What's different is there's more stability now. It's been about the new owners, the new atmosphere, the new arena. The whole city got behind us. It just took off."

The planners had a simple plan: Rychel, a former NHL scout with the Phoenix Coyotes, would get younger players such as Greg Nemisz, Adam Henrique, Mark Cundari, Ryan Ellis, and Boughner would give them enough ice time to develop. That was the pitch they made to Hall after taking him in the 2007 OHL draft.

"Windsor wasn't the closest spot for me," said Hall, who was then living in Kingston but had grown up in Calgary, where he once had a photo taken of him and Boughner, then a Flames defenceman. "I knew about the guys [Rychel and Boughner]from their playing days. As players. they weren't the most skilled but they were honourable. They were trustworthy. They told me I'd play and I believed them."

The Spitfires have made believers out of many, especially those who thought Rychel and Boughner didn't have the business/hockey acumen to get the Spitfires off the ground. What they did have was a friendship forged through their affinity for a junior team Boughner played for and Rychel idolized. And to hear them tell it, the good times shouldn't come to an end whatever the outcome of Sunday's game.

"Jack Campbell is coming next season [from the USHL and U.S. under-18 national team]and he's the best amateur goaltender out there," Rychel says. "We have Tom Kuhnhackl coming. He's the son of [former German star]Erich Kuhnhackl. We could have six potential first-round NHL picks coming back. Okay, Taylor Hall isn't coming back [it is expected he will be selected within the first two picks of the 2010 NHL draft] so it would be five. That's a great core.

"If you take a little step back and look at our lineup you realize, its pretty good [again next season]"

If you take a closer look, you realize the two guys who managed just 53 career goals in 1,036 regular-season NHL games - and never fought each other once - are a lot more on the mark as junior hockey operators. They're diligent; they're connected. They have their dads selling merchandise at the new rink, the Windsor Family Credit Union Centre. They have their moms serving food in the room where the scouts dine.

And best of all, they have a championship photo of the 2009 Spitfires displayed inside the team office. Stan Rychel figures they had to get someone to hang it for them.

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