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Hockey rite of passage continues

With the calendar flipped to September the ritual of people, young and old, flocking to the WFCU Centre for Windsor Spitfires training camp is back.

The Spitfires enter the 2023-24 season as back-to-back West Division champions where they

finished as the number-one seed in the Western Conference. But after coming one victory short of winning the OHL title two seasons ago, the Spits were shockingly eliminated in a first-round sweep by the Kitchener Rangers last season.

Fans want to know if Windsor will again be a Western Conference powerhouse this year or will the Spitfires rebuild on the fly to make another championship run in the future. That curiosity begins in training camp, and as the saying goes – “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

New Bench Look

The first thing you notice at training camp is the coaching staff. Jerrod Smith is the new head coach of the Spitfires. Smith was promoted from associate coach after Marc Savard left after two seasons in Windsor to become an assistant coach with the NHL’s Calgary Flames. Smith is an organizational success story. He has been with the Spitfires since 2011 when he was hired as the team’s video coach.

Andy Delmore remains as an assistant coach and Michael Leighton returns as Windsor’s goalie coach. Joining them will be new assistant Casey Torres, a Kingston native who joins Windsor from the Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League. “I’m excited for this opportunity,” said Torres. “I am thrilled to work with great organization, great

management and continue the great success of the team.”

Training Camp Roster

The Windsor Spitfires invited 57 players to training camp this season. Here is a breakdown of the numbers: Eight goaltenders,  18 defencemen and 31 forwards. 15 of those players were regulars on the 2022-23 Spitfires roster. That doesn’t include players like Carson Woodall or Cole Davis who were call-ups late last season and have a head start to make this year’s squad.

Injured and Ill

Two players invited to camp but not on the ice are Alex Christopoulos and Josef Eichler. Christopoulos, an overage forward who finished third in the OHL with 49 goals last season, is

not playing on the ice after having off-season wrist surgery. But the 20-year-old is still at camp

and in good spirits. He is hoping to return to action in mid-October.

Eichler, on the other hand, is not at camp. The 17-year-old right defenceman remains in

Czechia as he recovers from mononucleosis. He is awaiting test results to fly to North America. Eichler was the Spitfires first pick, 45 th overall, in the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft in July.

Vets Making An Impact

With 15 returning players in Spitfires camp, you would expect the veterans to dominate play and they have not disappointed. Overage forward Jacob Maillet, who finished second in team scoring with 25 goals and 76 points last season, has scored several goals in the intersquad games.

19-year-old forward Colton Smith, who scored 22 goals last season, looks leaner and

has improved his skating. Smith lost 25 pounds in the offseason. He also didn’t look out

of place playing with NHL players in the All In 4 ALS fundraising game in August.

It’s good to see Ryan Abraham back on the ice. The Livonia, Michigan native was limited to 29 games last season due to injuries but still had 35 points. He had surgery in March and said he is ready for the season ahead. "See the guys again puts a smile on my face." said the 19-year old. "It's been a long process. Everything is good now. I'm excited to be back."

Fresh off winning a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2023 Hlinka Gretzky Cup,

defenceman Anthony Cristoforo looks poised to take the next step. He said the

championship was “definitely one of the highlights of the summer.” Cristoforo is coming

off a 41-point season and continues to play well beyond his age with tremendous

command of the ice.

Liam Greentree was also a member of the gold medal-winning team and he continues to

light the lamp at camp. The 17-year-old forward is coming off a 25-goal rookie season

and will be mentioned, along with Cristoforo, as potential first-round NHL draft picks.

Forward AJ Spellacy won a bronze medal with Team USA at the 2023 Hlinka Gretzky

Cup. The 17-year-old forward looks stronger and faster at Spitfires camp after being

limited to 47 games due to injury in his rookie season.

Rodwin Dionicio has flashed his skill at camp, scoring an incredible shootout goal and

making plays in the offensive zone. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to fans who

watched him after being traded to Windsor from Niagara. The bigger question will be

how the 19-year-old defenceman plays in his own zone.

Struttin’ His Stuff

One player who is no stranger to the Ontario Hockey League but is new to Windsor is 19-year-

old forward Ryan Struthers. He is a free-agent invitee to camp after appearing in 31 games with the Mississauga Steelheads last season. Struthers also played 62 games with the Niagara IceDogs in 2021-22. Struthers, who shoots left and is listed as a centre, has stood out in training camp as he looks to make the Spitfires roster.

Rookie Impressions

Since I have covered the OHL regularly since 1994, one thing I like to do is watch players I

normally don’t get a chance to see play – young forwards, defencemen and goaltenders who

don’t get the press clippings but have made some nice plays to fulfill a dream of playing in the

Ontario Hockey League.

Carson Woodall and Cole Davis -- from the 2022 OHL Draft that also delivered Cristoforo,

Greentree and Spellacy -- look poised the make this year’s team. But there are several rookies who have also flashed some brilliance in an effort to push for a roster spot.

Jack Nesbitt, the 2023 first round pick of the Spitfires, has made some nice plays. At 6-

foot-4, the 16-year-old stands out on the ice. Nesbitt has not only scored, he also got

into it with a defenceman that nearly turned into the first fight in training camp.

Adrian Manzo was the second player taken by Windsor in the 2023 OHL Draft. Selected

in the 5 th round, the 16-year-old right defenceman will be given every opportunity to

make the Spitfires. He has good size at 6-foot-1 and has made some nice plays with the

puck. He needs to fill out his frame.

Gage Evans was a 14 th round pick in the 2022 draft. The 17-year-old left defenceman

stands out as he is listed at 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds. Evans has made some nice plays

with the puck. He is worth a closer look to see how he plays in front of his net.

Lucas Hihn is an undrafted 17-year-old defenceman with size. He is listed at 6-foot-1

and 200 pounds. He looks poised with the puck. Hihn’s defensive zone play will help

determine his future in Windsor.

Kyler Morgan is one of the older rookies in camp. The 18-year-old undrafted forward has

scored several goals in camp. He is listed at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds. If he continues to

score, he will get a longer look from the Spitfires brass.

Gone Campin’

A handful of players will leave Windsor Spitfires camp in less than two weeks to make an

impression at NHL rookie camps.

Rodwin Dionicio, a 5th round pick of the Ducks, will leave for Anaheim’s camp. Colton Smith is heading off to the Carolina Hurricanes camp. Jacob Maillet has been invited to Vancouver Canucks camp. Oliver Peer is invited to Calgary Flames camp. Nicholas DeAngelis has been invited to the Columbus Blue Jackets camp.

Game Time

Following Saturday's Blue-and-White game the Spits will turn their attention to their six-game pre-season schedule which opens September 9 th when the Spitfires host the Flint

Firebirds at the WFCU Centre. Windsor will open the regular season on the road when they travel to Sarnia on September 29th. The Spitfires will play their home opener on September 30 th against the Guelph Storm at the WFCU Centre.

Manny Paiva is one of the voices of the Windsor Spitfires radio broadcast with Steve Bell on

AM800. He is a respected broadcast journalist who has covered the Ontario Hockey League

since 1994.


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