A walk down Windsor’s memory lane
It's easy to trace the roots of hockey's history in Windsor because they all lead to one place.
Windsor Arena, or Border Cities Arena as it was known when it opened in 1924, was home to virtually every significant hockey event or player in the area until the WFCU Centre was opened in 2008.
The rink was the first indoor arena in Windsor and home to the Windsor Hornets, later called the Bulldogs, of the Canadian Pro League, as well the NHL's Detroit Cougars for the 1926-27 season.
The Cougars, who became the Detroit Red Wings, played their first season in Windsor while Olympia Stadium was being built.
However, it wasn't until the Wings placed their OHA farm team in Windsor (1946-53) that local fans began to see some future NHL stars.
With the Wings building the foundation of their powerhouse clubs of the 1950s, the Spitfires saw future Hall of Famers Terry Sawchuck, Al Arbour, Glenn Hall and Marcel Pronovost pull on their jersey. Also playing on those Spits teams were the Wilson brothers, Johnny and Larry, John Muckler and Don Cherry.
“I loved Windsor,” Cherry said. “I had some good times there.
“I had to borrow $25 from GM Lloyd Pollock for the train ride home.”
After the Spitfires left for Hamilton in 1953, the Bulldogs were revived to play in the Senior A league. From 1953 until they folded in 1964, the Bulldogs were the toughest ticket in town.
Lou Bendo, a star on the Bulldogs' 1962-63 Allan Cup-winning team, recalls hating coming to Windsor when he played for Stratford.
“They use to come to the boards and throw junk at us,” said Bendo, who turned down a chance to play for the Montreal Canadiens in 1955 because he could make more money playing Senior A hockey.
On the Bulldogs recorded one of the most famous wins in Windsor hockey history when they hammered the Soviet national team 9-2. It was the lone loss for the Soviets, the reigning world champions, on their cross-Canada tour.
The Windsor scene went dormant after the Bulldogs folded until the Spitfires returned as a Junior A club in 1971. They joined the OHL in 1975 and soon local names were popping up in the NHL.
Local product Brad Smith, known as Motor City Smitty, emerged as the first hero of the Spits' modern era.
“I always tell people I was a Spitfire,” said Smith, who played in the NHL for Detroit, Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto and now serves as Colorado's director of player personnel. “You just wanted to be part of it because it was your home.”
The list of names that followed Smith from Windsor into the NHL is growing ever longer.
Ed Jovanovski and Taylor Hall both were first-overall selections in the NHL draft, while Tim Kerr, Adam Graves and Rick Kehoe were 50-goal men.
There have been a slew of solid pros, from Bob Boughner to Pat Boutette, Bruce and Keith Crowder, Joel Quenneville, Mark Renaud, Darryl and Darrin Shannon, Cory Stillman, John Tucker, Kyle Wellwood and Tommy Williams.
Ernie Godden only got a brief taste of the NHL, but his 87-goal season in 1980-81 still stands as the OHL's single season record.
And then there is the group that has made Essex County one of the toughest in hockey – Bob Probert, Tie Domi, Darren McCarty, Warren Rychel and agitator Matt Cooke.
Domi admits idolizing Probert growing up.
“I was just a 15-year-old kid playing for the Windsor Bulldogs (Junior B) and so excited to see him," said Domi of first meeting Probert. “He was so likable.
“That's why I never tried to get to know him during our careers. I found it hard to do my job against guys once I got to know and like them.”
Of late, Windsor has become the cradle of NHL coaches.
Currently, there are five NHL coaches with Windsor ties, including the last two Stanley-Cup winning coaches, Chicago's Joel Quenneville and Boston's Claude Julien, who both played for the Spits.
Also in the NHL is Pete DeBoer (New Jersey) and Windsor-born Ron Wilson (Toronto).
Carolina general manager Jimmy Rutherford held the same post in the late 1980s for the Windsor Compuware Spitfires.
“When you think of all the games played there (Windsor Arena), it's amazing,” said Quenneville of his Spitfires' playing days. “Not too many buildings have the memories it does.”
Now the memories are being made the WFCU Centre, where former NHLers Bob Boughner (coach/president) and Warren Rychel (general manager) have already won two Memorial Cups since buying the Spitfires five years ago.
Soon names like Taylor Hall, Ryan Ellis, Cam Fowler and Adam Henrique could also find their way onto the Stanley Cup.