SPITFIRES GET LIFT FROM QMJHL
With roster in flux, Memorial Cup champs now 4-0 in exhibition action
The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League has been a secondchance refuge for many players from this province that could not land a spot in the Ontario Hockey League.
With a roster in a rebuilding phase, the Windsor Spitfires might be reversing that trend. The club had four former QMJHL players in the lineup for Friday’s 5-2 exhibition win over the Sarnia Sting at the WFCU Centre.
“I wasn’t surprised to come back to this league,” Spitfires forward Jake Smith said. “I wanted to finish where I started and make an impact.
“They’re all good leagues, but it’s nice to end up back in Ontario for my (overage) year.”
The Spitfires landed a top six defenceman on its Memorial Cup championship team last year in Austin McEneny when the Waterdown native returned to Ontario after a season with the Quebec Remparts.
Now, Smith has joined the team after two years in the QMJHL with three clubs. Igor Larionov, who is the son of the former NHLer of the same name, came aboard after a season with the Remparts while Joseph Mizzi spent time last season with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.
“Sometimes in junior hockey, the way the system is with the draft, if you’re not a high pick or a big guy, camp is short and if you’re not in the picture, you can get squeezed out,” Spitfires head coach Trevor Letowski said. “It’s a second chance and in this atmosphere, with jobs open, we have to be open minded. For the most part, those guys seem to be energized by the opportunity and we like all three of them.”
Smith was an 11th-round pick of Mississauga in 2013, but never played a game. He had 22 goals and 44 points last season, but got squeezed out of an overage spot.
“There were guys with 55 points that couldn’t find a spot and they’ve packed it in for the year,” said the 20-year-old Smith, who picked up an assist on Windsor’s first goal on Friday. “I had 22 (goals) last year and I’m hoping to have more this year and bring some leadership.”
Larionov was born in Detroit when his dad was playing for the Red Wings. A former 12th-round pick by Saginaw in 2014, he’s happy to be closer to home.
“I was looking to come closer to home and this was probably the best option,” said the 19-yearold Larionov, who had a goal in Friday’s win. “My dad sort of reached out to say I was interested in coming back to (Ontario).”
Mizzi, who is from Markham, was a seventh-round pick in the OHL in 2014 and played a full season with the Hamilton Bulldogs before heading to the QMJHL.
“It’s obviously a change, but it feels like I’m back home,” said the 19-year-old Mizzi, who also scored on Friday. “It’s just a better fit in the O(HL) and you have more exposure and I’m back with the same group of guys I grew up playing with.”
While Windsor will ice a younger lineup this season, Spitfires general manager Warren Rychel said you need older players in the lineup to help the transition for younger players, which is why getting players like Smith, Lirionov and Mizzi is valuable to the team.
“You need it,” Rychel said. “You can’t go all 16- and 17-year-old players. You need to be a little bit older.”
Overage captain Aaron Luchuk scored twice in Friday’s win, with Mathew MacDougall notching the other as Windsor improved to 4-0 in exhibition play. Rookie goalie Brock Baier allowed thirdperiod goals to Connor Schlichting and Hugo Leufvenius, but finished with 26 saves to earn the win.
The Spitfires will wrap up exhibition play on Saturday against the Sting in Sarnia and then prepare for Thursday’s season opener at home against the Saginaw Spirit.
For the most part, these guys seem to be energized by the opportunity.
Connor Schlichting, left, of the Sarnia Sting and Jake Smith of the Spitfires battle during exhibition action Friday.