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Defending Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires carry hopes of struggling city

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Eddie Francis rarely uses his seat when he watches the Windsor Spitfires. He likes to joke that every time the team plays at home, it feels more like a wedding for him because "everybody's just so happy, and everybody just wants to talk about how great the team is."

The story changes when the hockey game ends and life returns to normal in Windsor, where Francis is the mayor and where the unemployment rates are Canada's highest. And that means the Spitfires, the defending Memorial Cup champions who start their title defence when the Ontario Hockey League playoffs start Thursday, have become an invaluable escape.

"They've given people permission to be proud," Francis said. "They've given people permission to be proud of our city and our community. They've given people permission to brag about a great thing about this city."

The Spitfires won Canada's junior title for the first time their 34-year franchise history last spring, as the teeth of the global recession sunk even deeper into Windsor. The team posted its second straight 50-win season this year, and will open its defence against the Erie Otters in the OHL's Western Conference best-of-seven quarter-final.

Windsor had six players finish the regular season with at least 30 goals each, including forward Taylor Hall, who split the OHL scoring title with Tyler Seguin of the Plymouth Whalers. Both players, who are both leading prospects for the NHL Entry Draft this spring, finished the regular season with 106 points.

The Spitfires also fared well off the ice, even in the face of the overwhelming economic hardship. Windsor set a team attendance record by drawing more than 200,000 fans to the Windsor Family Credit Union Centre, which is part of a $71.6-million project that opened 15 months ago, following three decades of debate.

"It's been something for everybody to rally behind," said Rob Miller, who is a co-owner of Dirty Jerseys, a sports bar based near the arena. "It's kind of a source of pride when things aren't great around here. It's something that everybody can agree upon as being really good for the city."

The city's economy has floundered next to the flagging fortunes of the auto-makers based across the border in Detroit. Windsor's unemployment sat at 12.4 per cent in February, a slight improvement over January (12.8), but still the worst in Canada.

And even though the statistics have improved, the evidence has been hard to spot. On Wednesday, the team advertised it had 900 tickets remaining for the playoff opener.

"You see stuff in the papers," Miller said. "But in talking to the people, it's not like they're being called back (to work)."

There have been horror stories of skilled workers sending out resumes by the hundreds, receiving nothing but rejection in return.

"This team carried the entire city on its shoulders," Francis said. "Last year was probably one of the most difficult years that we, as a community, have gone through. And when they arrived back from the Memorial Cup, when they landed at Windsor Airport, the entire city came out."

And then they celebrated in the streets. The Spitfires were the first champion in tournament history to rebound after two opening defeats, rallying to beat the Kelowna Rockets 4-1 in the title game.

"That was more than people just celebrating the Windsor Spitfires," Francis said. "That was people thanking the Spitfires, thanking the organization and the players for lifting us up during the darkest time we were experiencing, in the darkest hour of perhaps one of the most economically challenged times."

It has been 15 years since a team won the Memorial Cup in consecutive tries, when the Kamloops Blazers beat the Detroit Jr. Red Wings. The Medicine Hat Tigers ('87-'88) and the Cornwall Royals ('80-'81) have also repeated with the last 30 years.

The Spitfires enter the playoffs as the top seed in their conference, but not as the strongest team in the league. The Barrie Colts finished with an OHL-best 57 wins and 116 points, and will open their post-season drive against the Sudbury Wolves.

"I feel for the guys, because there's been a lot of pressure on them, from the beginning of the season until now," Francis said of his hometown team. "The entire city is very excited at the prospect of them doing very well and winning it again."

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