Monday, March 13, 2017

Flint Firebirds 3 at Windsor Spitfires 4 (OT, OHL) - March 12, 2017

I visited Detroit this past weekend to see the Pistons and Red Wings before they move to Little Caesars Arena for next season. The Red Wings game was originally scheduled for 12:30 Sunday, allowing me to fly back that night. Unfortunately, NBCSN decided to switch that game with the Chicago/Minnesota tilt, moving the Wings to 7 pm. Other than the NFL flexing games (a well-documented policy that can generally be forecast in advance), I absolutely hate when game times are shifted for TV, which results in paying fans, particularly those traveling, getting shafted. I can't believe that NBCSN expects that they'll get more afternoon viewers in the Central Time Zone the day after Daylight Saving Time took effect, but who knows what they were thinking.

But I am not one to cry over spilled milk, I'd rather make lemonade. Or something like that. So when I found out that the Windsor Spitfires were home that afternoon, and I was able to book a mileage flight back to NYC for Monday morning, I decided to forgo my original flight and see both games, making it a two-country hockey doubleheader.

In a well-known bit of trivia, Windsor is actually south of Detroit, and there are two ways to get there: the Ambassador Bridge, and the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, which is generally a better option as no commercial traffic is allowed. There is a toll both ways ($5 on the way there, $4.50 on the way back, slightly more in Canadian dollars) but the bridge is no cheaper and you certainly can't swim across. With the Flint Firebirds the visitors, I expected a few Michiganders to make the trip, but I guess I overestimated the popularity of the OHL in Michigan and there was no wait at the Canadian border.

Opened in 2008 to replace Windsor Arena, WFCU Centre is about 10 km from the tunnel along surface streets, but on a Sunday morning, an easy drive by the waterfront, with views of Detroit across the river. Parking is free in the general lot just off McHugh, with season ticket holders getting the spots a bit closer. There are a number of community rinks and a pool here too, so you can use that lot if you prefer, but it might take you a while to get out after the game as it is on the far side of the facility.

My Michigan friend Mike decided to join me and brought his family along to root for Flint. The Spitfires have a special where you get 4 tickets for $69 along with 2 programs and $15 to use at Subway, so Mike picked that up and I got a single ticket next to them. Those seats are in the Red section behind the net that Windsor defends twice and are $18 usually, so not much of a discount. The view from our seats is above. Center ice seats are $25 and there are $14 seats in the top few rows higher up. There are also platinum seats but these seem to be only available to season ticket holders and are not on sale to the general public.

The arena is not symmetrical in that sense that at one end is a restaurant, which limits the number of regular seats behind that net (view from the restaurant above).

The other end has about 30 rows (above), including those $14 seats, and it was mostly empty on this day so if you want some space, this is where to sit. I was surprised that Windsor attacked the end with less seats; I would expect you'd want more fans to see the home team goals.

The concourse is relatively narrow but sufficient for the crowd, although it can be a bit busy during intermissions. Along one side there is a lounge for those platinum seat holders who want some space before the game. As I walked by, I noticed the Chicago-Minnesota game on TV and realized that I would not be here if that game had not been switched. There are also suites above the seating bowl as you can see below.

The Spitfires have a long history and won back-to-back Memorial Cups in 2009-10, and these are commemorated with banners, along with other titles and accomplishments.

A number of players have gone on to NHL greatness (Adam Graves and Ed Jovanovski for example) and banners on the opposite side of the rink denote these.

You might also notice #18 for Mickey Renaud above. Renaud was the Spitfires captain and a Flames draft pick when he suddenly passed away from a heart condition in 2008. There is a display case honouring him along the concourse, while the road leading to the rink is named for him as well.

The scoreboard is octagonal and quite small, with the video screen barely enough to see the replays clearly, but at least replays are shown, including those of visiting goals.

Food is quite cheap, at least when thinking about it in American funds. For example, a $5 hot dog is only 3.75 USD, a relative bargain these days. If you wish to eat beforehand, there is a Tim Horton's about a kilometre away, though this branch did not have sesame bagels for some reason. Seriously, how can a Tim Horton's not carry sesame bagels? Let me tell you, 12-grain is no substitute.

Overall, WFCU Centre is typical of junior hockey rinks built in the early years of the 21st century. A simple seating bowl, a few amenities for the season-ticket holders, a restaurant, and some history on display. It is a simple recipe, and although not as unique as older barns in Kitchener and Peterborough for example, it is still well worth a visit for any hockey fan. If you happen to be in Detroit in the winter and want to see some Canadian junior hockey, check out if the Spitfires are in town and make the trip across the border to add this rink to your collection.

The Game

Windsor was 5th in the OHL’s West Division with 39 wins from 64 games while Flint was 7th, but substantially worse in terms of record, having won 32 of their 64 contests. Both teams had already clinched playoff spots, so there wasn't a lot to play for. The Firebirds scored early when Everett Clark sped by a defenseman and beat Michael DiPietro (no relation to Rick) just 1:48 in. The rest of the period was crap, with Flint outshooting Windsor 7-6.

In the second stanza, Flint again scored in the first two minutes, this time Nicholas Caamano (drafted in the 5th round in 2016 by Dallas) tipped in a Clark shot. Midway through the period, Caamano added a power play marker and the fans became quite restless as their team didn’t seem to be playing with much urgency. Shots after two were 14-13 for Windsor, a snoozer that continued into the third period, though the Spitfires started to attack more.

With about 9 minutes to go in the third, Caamano poked home a rebound for the hat trick, and the fans behind me got up to leave, saying “That’s it, we’re outta here”. But wait! The referee did not signal goal! The play was offside but nobody heard the whistle! The score remained 3-0, but the fans behind me had already left, breaking the golden rule of attending a game: “Never Leave Early”. A couple of minutes later, Flint again had a goal disallowed after a review showed that it had been kicked in. I jokingly told Mike that Windsor would use these disallowed goals as motivation, but it turns out I was right. About a minute after the second disallowed goal, Sean Day (Rangers 3rd-rounder in 2016) scored a seeing-eye goal on a power play, and just 22 seconds later, Julius Nattinen (Anaheim's 2nd rounder in 2015) slid a backhander through the legs of Garrett Forrest to cut the Flint lead to 3-2. The Spitfires sensed the Firebirds were fading and kept buzzing around the net, quickly tying the game with 5:25 to go as Nattinen added his second on a slapper from the left circle.

Flint managed to get the game to overtime, but that was their only accomplishment as Windsor kept the pressure on during the 3-on-3 session and eventually Aaron Luchuk scored after being left all alone in front to complete the improbable comeback. A great finish to an otherwise dull game, but I can’t help thinking of the reaction of those fans when they heard the final score was 4-3 in favour of Windsor. How could that be? They were losing 4-0 when we left! Once again: "Never Leave Early".

Highlights can be seen here if you care.


Only the first goal was scored in our end, lending credence to my claim that Windsor should attack the end with more seats to make the game more exciting for their fans.

The WFCU Centre will host the Memorial Cup this year between May 19-28. The Detroit Tigers have home games against Texas from the 19-21 but are out of town the rest of the time. All games are in the evening, so a same-day doubleheader is not possible.

Even though Windsor is not likely to win the OHL title, they will contend for the Memorial Cup as hosts. I have always hated this rule because it rewards the ability of the bid committee to attract the tournament, and not the team itself. If Windsor doesn’t take home the OHL championship, the fourth team should be the OHL team with the best record in the regular season to make the games that much better. Even Windsor fans would probably appreciate competitive games over seeing their team get shellacked.



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