WINDSOR, Ont. — If Warren Rychel thought he was getting an earful from Jeremy Bracco before, wait until the two are in the same room now.
A fantastic Mastercard Memorial Cup final was bookended by a touch of brilliance from Bracco, who registered a goal and two assists in the Windsor Spitfires’ 4-3 win over the Erie Otters on Sunday night at the WFCU Centre in Windsor. The victory made Windsor—which gained an automatic entry as the host team—the first squad in CHL history to win the national title after being bounced in the opening round of the playoffs. The Spitfires are also the third consecutive OHL-based winner and the first host champion since the Shawinigan Cataractes in 2012.
Aaron Luchuk netted the trophy-clincher 5:07 into the third period, blasting off the bench to convert a pass from Bracco, who’d attracted the attention of three Otters on the far wall. In the first period, Bracco glided through that same patch of ice towards the glass, pumping his arms to further gas up an already-firing crowd after he got his team rolling with the contest’s first goal.
“He lives at my house, he never shuts up, but I’ll tell you what, he can talk all he wants now,” said Rychel, the Spitfires GM who acquired Bracco—a Toronto Maple Leafs prospect—from the Kitchener Rangers in January. “This is why we made the trade, right here.”
“He was sick.”
And he wasn’t the only ill one.
Gabriel Vilardi, a highly-touted prospect for the coming NHL Draft, had a pair of assists, as did Ottawa Senators first-rounder Logan Brown. As for 17-year-old goalie Michael DiPietro, he displayed uncanny calm during the entire event. The hometown kid—who often sat in the stands cheering on Spits teams that won consecutive Memorial Cups in 2009 and 2010—defied the doubters and played like a seasoned vet. DiPietro, also eligible for the 2017 NHL Draft, finished the tournament with a .932 save percentage; the next-best mark in the tournament was .875.
“He was not fazed by age—everybody [says] you gotta be 19 years old—it doesn’t matter,” said Rychel. “I’ve known him since he was eight years old and he’s the guy.”
Credit the entire Windsor squad with keeping a steady hand throughout a thrilling final that teetered back and forth.
Just 49 seconds after Bracco got things going, Erie tied it on a perfect post-and-in shot from captain and tournament MVP Dylan Strome. A second-period Otters lead also proved ephemeral when, on the heels of a goal from Warren Foegele that required a second look from the refs, Windsor required just 52 seconds to find the answer from Logan Stanley.
T.J. Fergus put Erie ahead once again when his point shot glanced off Stanley, but Graham Knott slammed home a power-play goal after a nice feed from Vilardi to make sure it was all square at 3-3 heading to the final frame.
That set the stage for Bracco, who proved a seamless fit with the Spitfires.
“Bracs has been incredible for us ever since he got here,” said the 20-year-old Luchuk. “He just stepped it up another notch for the Memorial Cup.”
The big win was the second celebration for Bracco this season after he helped Team USA win the world junior championship five months ago in Montreal. Being in big moments—and thriving when there—is something he strives for.
“I think that’s what really defines a player,” Bracco said.
Timely contributions were a theme for this Spitfires outfit, which spent 44 days preparing for the Memorial Cup between a Game 7 loss to the London Knights and a 3-2 win over the Saint John Sea Dogs to open the event on May 19.
As is the major junior custom, sweeping changes now await Windsor. Bracco will join the pro ranks next year and, while he still has a year of junior eligibility left, Rychel said stud defenceman Mikhail Sergachev—who began this season with the Montreal Canadiens—has played his last game in Windsor, too.
But everybody, for the next little while, will relish all that went on during this unique week.
“The boys caught a bolt of lightning and they ran with it,” Rychel said.