Storied Spitfires line reunites
Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique and Eric Wellwood revisit the scene of their OHL glory
The trio led Windsor to its consecutive Memorial Cups with historic comebacks
Former teen best friends and linemates, they are now friendly rivals in the NHL
History was heavily against them as they sat taping their sticks and adjusting their pads, but Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique and Eric Wellwood remained the eye of the calm in a surprisingly unworried locker room. Down three games to none to the Kitchener Rangers in the Ontario Hockey League's 2010 Western Conference Championship Series, the Windsor Spitfires had 60 minutes to decide whether their summer would start the next morning or if they'd get another chance to keep their defense of the Memorial Cup alive. Only two OHL teams had ever survived such a hole, and with less than two minutes left to play in regulation and the game tied at five, the Spits got their answer...
On July 27, a little more than two years after that unforgettable night, the Windsor Family Credit Union Centre will be loud with Metallica, greetings and laughter as one of the franchise's most storied lines is reunited for the first time since their glory days in junior hockey. Two championship banners will be hanging from the rafters, reminding them of what they accomplished together.
Amid the morning conversations and scraping of skate blades on fresh ice, Henrique will exploit his bragging rights for having made it further in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs than his former linemates. En route to the Cup final, the Calder Trophy nominee as NHL rookie of the year scored overtime goals that allowed his New Jersey Devils to eliminate the Florida Panthers in the first round and the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final. In between, the Devils ran into the Philadelphia Flyers, marking the first time that Henrique and Wellwood had faced off against each other in the NHL postseason.
"We called each other before the series to wish each other luck," says Wellwood, who scored five goals and nine points with a plus-12 rating for the Flyers in 24 regular season games. "But during the whole series we never talked, not even on the ice."
They'd played against each other during the regular season and in the AHL in 2010-11, usually warming up close enough to engage in some friendly trash talk, but this was different. They were like strangers on the ice as New Jersey won an emotional series against its rivals to the south by taking four straight games after dropping the opener. In the handshake line after the final buzzer, Henrique and Wellwood exchanged words that describe their relationship in a nutshell.
"Well I didn't really get a word in," says Henrique. "He told me I better win the Cup, and I better bring it home."
Meanwhile, Hall could only watch from afar. His Edmonton Oilers have yet to make the playoffs during his two years with them, but he earned some bragging rights of own by being selected first overall in the 2010 NHL Draft. Henrique had been taken by the Devils in the third round, 82nd overall, in 2008. Wellwood went to the Flyers in the sixth round of the 2009 NHL Draft, at 172. "I don't think [where you're drafted] has anything to do about what kind of hockey player you become," Wellwood says.
Hall had also been highly touted for the 2007 OHL Priority Draft, going to Windsor with the second overall pick. One year earlier, the Spitfires had selected Henrique and Wellwood in the second and fourth rounds respectively. The franchise had been scarred by a hazing incident that cost head coach/general manager Moe Mantha his job in November 2005 and was under new management (former NHL players Bob Boughner and Warren Rychel) with a reputation to repair. Thirty-four years had passed since Windsor entered the OHL and despite Adam Graves and Steve Ott coming and going, the Memorial Cup had yet to end up in the City of Roses. That changed during the 2008-09 season when after a tragedy, the cup finally made its way down McHugh Street.
The summer of 2008 marked the beginning of Canada's automotive industry crisis and layoffs became as common as puck-drops. The mood in Windsor had already been darkened even more the previous February when Spitfires' captain Mickey Renaud died suddenly in his Tecumseh home. The 19-year-old had a genetic disorder that made his heart abnormally thick. His legacy lives on in Windsor's championship photo, which shows his number 18 jersey draped around the Memorial Cup after the Spits made junior history by becoming the first team to win it after losing their first two games of the round-robin tournament. They were also the first team to win it after having to play an extra tiebreaker game.
"We go in as the favorites, everybody says we're going to roll over everybody," Henrique recalls. "We lose our first two games, now our backs are against the wall."
The two early losses meant the Spitfires had to go undefeated the rest of the way. Led by Henrique, the tournament's leading scorer, and Hall, the MVP, Windsor outscored its opponents 15-8 in their four remaining games, including an 3-2 overtime thriller against the Drummondville Voltigeurs in the semifinal. Four-and-a-half minutes into extra play, the characteristically clutch Henrique found a rebound in the slot and slapped it past Marco Cousineau to light the lamp. (Video)
"[Adam] was always a guy that came up big when the game mattered," says Hall. "I knew that when the chips were down he was going to play well and [Drummondville] was a perfect example."
Hall and Henrique were at the top of Windsor's depth chart during all three years of Hall's junior career (2007-10). Time spent together on and off the ice made it possible for the teenage tandem to develop a unique chemistry, and by their final season with the Spits, they looked more like veterans than 20-year-olds who were still developing a professional game.
"I know what he's thinking in different situations," says Henrique. "I'll be able to read off him, what he wants me to do and what I want him to do, and that's why we had success."
No matter how dominant they may be, two players don't make a line and coach Boughner kept cycling right wingers in and out until he found the perfect fit in 2009.
"Ya know, [Eric Wellwood] was the piece that really took us over the top as a line," says Henrique.
Wellwood, an undersized forward, admits that he was picked by Windsor because of his brother, Kyle (currently with the Winnipeg Jets), who won the Eddie Powers Memorial Trophy as the OHL's scoring champion for 2000-01. But Eric immediately clicked in the line's chemistry, and by the end of the season he'd doubled his point total (68) from the prior year. So, three players from different parts of Canada -- Hall from Calgary by way of Kingston, Ontario; Henrique from rural Burford, Ont.; Wellwood from Windsor -- with different playing styles found a way to balance each other and the Spitfires became only the eighth team to ever win back-to-back junior hockey championships.
"Wellie was always a guy who played bigger than he was and Adam was a pretty thick kid," says Hall, who used his high-end ability to create scoring chances. "I just tried to finesse my way through the junior level."
Henrique developed into an offensively dangerous two way center and Wellwood became known for his speed and hard work along the boards. Each forward complemented the other, but what separated them from all-star lines of the past was how close they were off the ice.
"We were teenage kids in a new town going to, ya know, a new high school, meeting new people," says Hall. "No one got traded or anything, and I think that's why we won. We really wanted it for each other."
Going into the 2009-10 season, Windsor was expected to repeat, and with the increased demand for success, the always-improving trio scored at least 30 goals apiece (Hall tallied 40, and 106 points) to make the Spitfires the top team in the OHL's Western Conference.
"If we didn't win that year it was going to be a disappointment," says Hall.
The disappointment nearly came when the Spitfires fell behind Kitchener three games to none in the western final. Windsor was in the familiar situation of not having the luxury of losing another game, but only two teams in OHL history had ever completed such a comeback: the 1988 Ottawa 67's and the 2005 Spitfires.
The Spits skated out of the visitors' locker room with purpose, but found themselves in a seesaw game with the Rangers. With less than two minutes left to play, Boughner sent Hall, Henrique and Wellwood onto the ice. The turning point of the series came off the stick of Hall, whose timely wrist shot provided an unforgettable game winner.
"Your backs are against the wall and you score a goal with two minutes left, it's a pretty good feeling," he says. "After we won that game, we knew we had a chance."
Windsor now had to win three straight, a task that Hall referred to as something the team did regularly during the season. The Spitfires cruised to a confident 3-0 victory in Game 5 and a crushing 6-4 comeback win in Game 6, the tying goal by Henrique. Game 7 took place in the WFCU Centre with 6,900 red jerseys and white towels packed into the arena's black plastic seats.
"Once we were playing game seven on our home ice and our fans were going crazy, we were feeling pretty good," says Hall. "We knew that [Kitchener's] backs were against the wall."
Wellwood and Henrique both scored, helping to eliminate Kitchener, 4-1. The Spitfires went on to sweep the Barrie Colts in the OHL Finals and roar through the Memorial Cup tournament by outscoring their foes 28-9 and trailing for all of one minute. In the final game, the Spits blew out the WHL champion Brandon Wheat Kings, 9-1, with Henrique opening the scoring, Wellwood being credited with the winning goal, and Hall extending Windsor's lead to 3-0 before ultimately raising the MVP trophy as the first back-to-back winner.
Although Hall remembers how sad he was to see his final junior season come to an end, he admitted it was time for him and his teammates to make pro careers for themselves and careers they are making: 13 members of that close-knit locker room have already played in the NHL. Henrique credits Windsor's remarkable success simply to the coaching staff and the trust that every player on the roster shared in and outside of the arena.
"Everyone challenged each other to be better, whether it be hockey or video games, anything that we did, we had to do our best," Wellwood says. "[Windsor] was something special and I think we all knew it was something special."