There’s no counting the times that Warren Rychel and Bob Boughner had sat in the stands watching the Spitfires at the Windsor Arena, that glorious and ancient dump within a couple city blocks of bingo halls, strip joints and hourly muggings. Sons of Windsor, Rychel and Boughner were just runts when their fathers took them downtown to see the Spits. They had watched Ernie Godden set scoring records that still stand and Joel Quenneville, who scored 103 points from the Windsor blue line one season. They had played there in front of family and friends when they were in grade school and down the line when they had come back with their OHL teams. This one night in the fall of 2004 they sat together in the stands — exactly who the Spitfires were playing and how the game wound up are lost in the fog of years — and talked not about the game on the ice or the glory days, but rather the future.
You could see how the future would weigh on their minds.
Back in ’99, Rychel had retired after seven NHL seasons with five teams and 120 fights, done at 31. There’s no calculating the number of times he had dropped the gloves in the minors — he twice topped 300 minutes in penalties with Indianapolis in the long-gone International Hockey League. When he finally got called up to the AHL, sniffing distance of the NHL, he stepped up his work and spent more than 200 minutes in the box in less than half a season. In the way the game looks after its own, the Phoenix Coyotes brought him in as scout, working both the amateur and pro sides.
For his part, Boughner was out of the game — call it an involuntary hiatus. He was still a player but, at 33 and with an approach as combative as Rychel’s, he had only so much left and nowhere to play, no chance to. The NHL was in its lockout season and Boughner was spending hours driving back and forth between Windsor and Toronto. He was a vice-president of the NHLPA and instead of squeezing out one of the last paycheques of his career, he was diving down on the business of the league.
The two knew the uncertainties of the game. Rychel knew that a scout serves at the pleasure of his GM and one change in the front office can put a staff on the sidewalk. Boughner couldn’t know how much more he’d be able to squeeze out of his body before it stopped talking to him.
Their shared thought bubble: We should own this team.
The Memorial Cup opened in Windsor on Friday night but it would surely have landed somewhere else were it not for Rychel and Boughner’s decision to find a way to stay in the game. It might be a bit much to say that they saved junior hockey in Windsor. Major-junior hockey’s grip on most of its long-standing markets is pretty stubborn and when it takes root, it’s like a weed. That said, the Spitfires would have been worth more elsewhere than they were in Windsor circa 2004, and the city was in the process of losing bigger stuff than that, what with the auto plants being shuttered. Still, Rychel and Boughner didn’t think about another place. It had to be here. And it had to be now.
Steve Riolo, a major player in construction in the area, had bought the Spitfires in the late ’80s and didn’t seem much inclined to sell the team when first approached. It’s easy to believe that the league would have been delighted by new ownership, though. Windsor had been a bit of an embarrassment for the OHL under Riolo. Back in the late ’90s, the Spitfires landed in the news when an untalented goon named Jeff Kugel jumped off the bench during a fight and started taking on all comers, something along the lines of the Royal Rumble. The video of the incident made national newscasts and would have gone viral if YouTube had been around at the time. The OHL gave Kugel a lifetime ban but people had a reason to think, “What gives with the coaches keeping a cement-head around whose sole role is beating somebody’s teenage son?” A few years later, another ugly incident put the Spitfires back in the news, when Steve Downie, Windsor’s nominal star player, busted rookie teammate Akim Aliu in the face in practice, payback for refusing to go along with a rite of team hazing. Again, another video on the news that made the team and the league look bad.
That stuff was in keeping with the old rink, mind you. Windsor Arena was Canada’s closest thing to a legalized bullring, both in its design (the seats at one end hung over the glass) and in its patrons’ love of gore. “It’s a blue-collar town,” Rychel says. “People work hard and a lot have it rough. And that’s how they liked their hockey.” Adds Boughner: “Just look at the players that came out of Windsor … Bob Probert, Tie Domi, Ed Jovanovski. If there was a brand of Windsor hockey, it would be a tough, physical hockey.”
It looked like the city was in for more of the same when Riolo finally relented in 2006 and was bought out by Rychel, Boughner and partner Peter Dobrich, president of the Windsor-based Private Financial Group.
Not how it turned out at all.
Taking charge ahead of the 2006–07 season, Rychel as GM and Boughner as coach set about remaking the team in something other than their own image. Rychel believed he had a head start on the learning curve from his time scouting for Phoenix. “I was lucky that I had a chance to learn from guys like Cliff Fletcher and Dave Draper, hockey lifers,” he says. “And I learned how to organize things from my father and his accounting work.”
Boughner walked into his role cold. “I was lucky to play for some really good coaches but most of all Ted Nolan [in the Soo in junior and Buffalo in the NHL],” Boughner says. “Ted might not have been the best with Xs and Os, but you wanted to play your best for him. If you lost, you really felt like you had let him down.”
There was surely a temptation to underestimate Rychel. No one gives tough guys credit when it comes to understanding the game — people think the Rychels of hockey must lack a certain self-awareness just to do the ugly job they sign on for. That may be true in some cases, but more often they know the job and the price better than those gifted first-liners. Then, there’s the nickname. Back when Rychel was having a bit of an issue with his beltline in the minors, his coach, Archie Henderson, dubbed him “Bundy,” a reference to wrestling legend King Kong Bundy. It has stuck and will stick until they carve a memorial stone for him. Boughner is referred to by one and all as “Boogie.” Again, it doesn’t matter how expensive your suit is if people still call you Bundy and Boogie. The two could have moved away but they came back to their roots where everyone calls them by their time-tested nicknames and they don’t feel obliged to put on airs.
And then there’s the matter of temperament. Here the image does fit. A word of advice: If you happen to be sitting next to Warren Rychel on press row at a Spitfires game or in the stands when his son is on the ice with the Toronto Marlies, move. Immediately. If you’re sitting there with a full cup of coffee beside your notes, there’s a chance you’ll be wearing it before you’re done drinking it. It’s not personal, not aggressive nor abusive, just that he’s not much on internalizing — he is what he has always been, no matter what the situation. When he played for the Colorado Avalanche in the 1996 Stanley Cup Final, he managed to drop the gloves with Jovanovski, another son of Windsor, and if he’s barking at a ref, it’s like he’s travelling in time back to the ’90s. To a lesser degree, Boughner also carries the air of a player who stuck in the pros in large part because he had more want.
Many would have had their doubts based on the Spitfires’ first campaign with Rychel and Boughner as proprietors. It wasn’t a bad season per se; that they were prepared for. No, 2006–07 was historically bad: 18-43-7. “We had a plan,” Rychel says. “Things go in cycles. We were going to draft and take a group of kids, 16-year-olds through to when they’re 19. We drafted Taylor Hall. We drafted Ryan Ellis, Adam Henrique.”
Rychel and Boughner had to shed the Spitfires’ rep before they could build something new and lasting, and no small part of that process was getting into a new venue. For all its charm — okay, an acquired taste — Windsor Arena wasn’t a viable venue in the long term. When the two were thinking about having to do it here, they meant the city not the old barn. In January 2007, in the middle of the annus horribilis, shovels were breaking ground for a new arena out in the suburban east side, the WFCU Centre.
Their plan was rolling ahead. Hall and Ellis turned out to be legit prodigies. A lot of pieces were in place. And then, one awful morning in February 2008, they learned that the Spitfires’ team captain Mickey Renaud had died. A Windsor native, Renaud had an undiagnosed heart condition, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. He had died suddenly at home where two of his teammates were billeting.
I knew Rychel and Boughner from covering the NHL back in the ’90s — Rychel more thanks to his brief stint with the Leafs; Boughner mostly from his time in Buffalo with Nolan. As stated, they were both heart-and-soul guys. I went to Windsor a week or so after Renaud’s death. To that point, games on the Spitfires schedule had been cancelled and rescheduled. I went down to their offices the morning of the first game after Renaud’s death, a game against the Belleville Bulls. It’s not a pretty aspect of the business that I’m in, having to stand there with a notepad while others grieve. Rychel talked about his father sharpening Renaud’s skates when Mickey was six years old. Boughner talked about Renaud going to the train station to pick up players who had arrived on the team through trades.
I wrote this that day, and it stands up as a testament to who these two tough guys are:
“The funny thing was, the ex-NHLers who own, manage and coach the Spitfires seemed to be taking it harder than the teenagers in the junior team’s dressing room. It feels cruel just to type that, but you couldn’t miss it. Thursday morning, on the eve of the Spitfires’ first game after the sudden death 10 days before of Mickey Renaud, the team’s captain, it seemed like the kids were in better shape than the former pros.”
No sporting event I’ve been to in the last 30 years matches the emotion in the Windsor Arena that night when they raised a banner into the rafters as a tribute to Renaud. Belleville ended up winning in overtime against a Spitfires team that played over its head just to compete, but I’ve also never been to a game where the final score meant less.
Future NHLers Hall, Ellis and Henrique were among those who played in the last game at the Windsor Arena and in the first at the WFCU Centre, and on Spitfires teams that won Memorial Cups in 2009 and ’10. The core group was the same one year to the next, but their routes to the championship couldn’t have been more different. In 2009, a talented team was 20 minutes from going out of the tournament winless — 0-2 and trailing Kelowna by a goal in the third period. The next season they rolled to victory, beating host Brandon 9-1 in the final. Both times out, though, the team played something other than old-time Windsor hockey. They played the game in fourth and fifth gear and dared you to keep up. There was no banging what you couldn’t catch up with. There was no gooning anybody while you struggled to catch your breath.
Boughner impressed NHL execs with his work with the Spitfires and left the team after the second championship to serve as an assistant coach with Columbus. This season he was behind the bench in San Jose. Still, you get a sense that his emotional investment in the team is at least a match for his financial one. And, as ever, Rychel can hold nothing back. When he talked about his son Kerby playing for Windsor, he cut straight to what you know has to be true: “When your kid is out there, don’t tell me that you’re not watching him,” he said. Having sat beside him at games I can assure that, with Kerby graduating to the pros, Warren Rychel looks at everyone in a Spitfires uniform as a son.
The current Spitfires aren’t a team on a scale with those past Memorial Cup winners — they were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by the London Knights and they’re in the field as hosts. “We thought we’d be better this year,” Rychel says. “We thought we had a chance of winning [the OHL championship].”
It’s uphill climbing to have six weeks off and then step into a tournament against Canada’s top major-junior teams, but Windsor did just that in the opening round of the tournament, decisively beating Seattle and Saint John, champions of the WHL and QMJHL respectively. Then again, coming back from an unwanted vacation for a handful of games was not as daunting as righting a tired franchise back in 2006, not as hard as watching the Mickey Renaud banner come down when the Windsor Arena went dark. The tough guys have been through the toughest stuff already. Anything from here is gravy.
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