Mem­o­rable route to the Me­mo­rial Cup

From Jr. B to Jr. A, then QMJHL, and now the Spit­fires

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - TERI PECOSKIE

A few hours from now, Austin McE­neny will lace up his skates and step onto the ice for the open­ing game of the Me­mo­rial Cup — the apex of ma­jor ju­nior hockey in this coun­try.

He’s ex­cited, fo­cused, and, quite frankly, sur­prised. “I never thought I would be in this sit­u­a­tion,” said the Wind­sor Spit­fires de­fence­man — and for good rea­son.

The road he trav­elled to get here wasn’t ex­actly smooth.

Wind­sor, which is host­ing this year’s tour­na­ment, is the lat­est stop in a four-year jour­ney that started when McE­neny, a Wa­ter­down na­tive, was passed over at the On­tario Hockey League draft.

Since then he has suited up for Blyth Acad­emy, the Jr. A Burling­ton Cougars, the Jr. B Cale­do­nia Cor­vairs and the Que­bec Rem­parts of the Que­bec Ma­jor Ju­nior Hockey League. He re­turned to Que­bec at the start of this sea­son, but left mid­way through train­ing camp — he wanted to be closer to home.

McE­neny hadn’t been on waivers long when the Spit­fires called in Septem­ber. The team was tipped off to his tal­ent and of­fered him a try­out, or as head coach Rocky Thomp­son puts it, “we thought it was worth a look.” He quickly liked what he saw. “When Austin came in on that very first day, we knew he could pass the puck and we iden­ti­fied strengths in his game,” Thomp­son said. “He ex­ceeded our ex­pec­ta­tions.”

As the sea­son went on, the 20-year-old was given more and more op­por­tu­nity — par­tic­u­larly af­ter blue­liner Lo­gan Stan­ley tore his menis­cus. The Win­nipeg Jets first rounder missed 26 games af­ter surgery along with the first round of the play­offs, which al­lowed McE­neny to play his way into Wind­sor’s Top-4.

The se­cret to his suc­cess is sim­ple, said Thomp­son. Lit­er­ally.

“It’s sim­ple hockey,” he added. “He can de­fend, he’s a good util­ity guy, he kills penal­ties, and, like I said, he has the abil­ity to move pucks very ef­fec­tively.

“That’s his game and that’s what he has to do and do ef­fec­tively, and he’s helped us out all year by be­ing that guy.”

The Spit­fires open the na­tional cham­pi­onship against the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs tonight at the WFCU Cen­tre. It’s their first game since be­ing ousted by the Lon­don Knights in the open­ing round of the OHL play­offs April 4.

The loss of that se­ries — a seven-game af­fair in which the Knights bat­tled back from a 3-1 deficit — was dev­as­tat­ing for McE­neny and his mates, but there was an up­side. In a sea­son in which sev­eral star play­ers were side­lined — on top of Stan­ley, Lo­gan Brown, Jeremiah Ad­di­son, Gabe Vi­lardi and Hay­den McCool all missed chunks of the cam­paign with in­juries — the 45-day hia­tus that en­sued gave the Spit­fires time to heal, train, pre­pare.

For the past six weeks the team has hit the weights, prac­tised, or scrim­maged (at times with mem­bers of the Univer­sity of Wind­sor var­sity squad) al­most daily.

Play­ers bick­ered and tem­pers flared, said Cris­tiano DiGiac­into, “but it was good be­cause the speed, I think, in­creased over time and the strength of our guys and the pace just slowly got bet­ter and bet­ter.”

“We’re stronger, faster, and we’re ready to go,” the Hamil­ton-born for­ward added.

On top of the Sea Dogs, the Spit­fires will have to get by the Erie Ot­ters and the West­ern Hockey League’s Seat­tle Thun­der­birds in or­der to win their third Me­mo­rial Cup in less than a decade. While they don’t en­ter the tour­na­ment as OHL cham­pi­ons, they aren’t nec­es­sar­ily un­der­dogs ei­ther.

With Stan­ley back in the lineup — an ad­di­tion that will bump McE­neny into the No. 5 slot — Wind­sor’s coach­ing staff will have ac­cess to ev­ery player in its arse­nal for the first time this sea­son.

That in­cludes 10 NHL picks or prospects and others such as Vi­lardi and goal­tender Michael DiPi­etro, who are both ex­pected to have their names called early in this year’s draft.

“It gives us a great op­por­tu­nity to have more suc­cess than we’ve ex­pe­ri­enced in the past be­cause we are healthy and we have so many parts that are dan­ger­ous and that are ef­fec­tive in their own way,” said Thomp­son. “It’s like any team — when they’re healthy, they’re more dan­ger­ous.”

AARON BELL, OHL IM­AGES

Wa­ter­down na­tive Austin McE­neny is play­ing for a Me­mo­rial Cup with the Wind­sor Spit­fires.

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