WINDSOR, Ont. - Some losses just don't feel like a loss.
Especially on a night like this one at Windsor Arena, where the Spitfires paid tribute to captain Mickey Renaud before playing one of the Ontario Hockey League's best teams.
It had been almost two weeks since the Spitfires played a game, and they were among the more trying weeks of these young men's lives. Renaud died Feb. 18 at the age of 19 after collapsing at his home in nearby Tecumseh.
So even though the Belleville Bulls left with a 4-3 shootout win on Thursday, the Windsor players could still hold their heads high after playing their first game without Renaud.
"To me that was a win tonight," said Bob Boughner, the Spitfires president and head coach. "The way they dealt with all the adversity all week and the devastation and the ceremonies tonight.
"They really pushed through and showed their hearts. I couldn't be more proud of them."
The emotional evening was not just a tribute to Renaud, it was also a night for his former teammates.
Fans lined up in the bitter cold to ensure that the arena was full before the team even took the ice, and everyone came clad in red to show support for the home team.
The Windsor players wore pensive looks while waiting to take the ice for the pre-game warmup. They hit hands and winked at one another as nearby fans yelled: "Do it for Mickey!"
By the end of the night they could say they had.
"We definitely wanted to get through the first game without him," said defenceman Ryan Ellis, who pointed to the sky after scoring during the shootout. "We really wanted to win it for him, that's what we had our minds set on. But coming out with a point is not bad against the second-place team in our league."
The evening was full of tributes to Renaud.
His No. 18 was painted on the ice behind each net and represented by a sticker on every players' helmet and sweater. The Spitfires and Bulls also each warmed up in jerseys with Renaud's name and number stitched on the back.
Many of the Windsor players bowed their heads and rubbed their eyes as they took off their Renaud sweaters and placed them in piles on a table at centre ice just before the opening faceoff.
"I thought personally that I was going to get through it a little better," said goalie Andrew Engelage. "It was a little tougher than I thought it was going to be. To get right in the game right after was extremely hard."
They had been determined to remain strong but were unable to contain all their emotions.
The team has met repeatedly with counsellors from victims service to help them with the grieving process after Renaud's death.
"We made sure that everybody had a chance to talk about their emotions," said Boughner. "We suggested that everyone get it out."
There were almost as many red eyes in the building as there were red shirts in the stands during a 10-minute video tribute that was shown before the game. The clips were assembled by assistant coach D.J. Smith and showed Renaud scoring his first OHL goal and being on the winning end of a couple fights.
One of the most emotional moments came after the video when Renaud's older brother Remy performed the ceremonial faceoff. Belleville's Keaton Turkiewicz came forward but no member of the Spitfires joined him as the puck was dropped. Windsor will not name a captain in Renaud's place this season.
His family appreciates the support they've received.
"It's great to see how much everyone cared about Mickey," said Remy Renaud. "This shows that he will not just be missed by our family but by the entire Windsor community."
A Thursday night like this is usually meant for hockey, especially with the way these teams have performed this season. Belleville entered the game as the top team in the Eastern Conference while the Spitfires sat third in the West.
But it was clear that there was much more going on at the 84-year-old arena which is affectionately called "The Barn."
Pictures drawn by grade school kids as a tribute to Renaud hung in the corridors while fans lined up to sign books of condolence. Several display cases also contained some of his memorabilia, including a photo of Renaud in a Calgary Flames jersey that was taken after he was drafted by the NHL team last summer.
Following the game, many of the Spitfires gathered in a lounge and watched a nearby TV that was replaying highlights from Renaud's career. There was a lot to take in.
"It get emotional there seeing the videos and the jerseys and everything," said assistant captain Elgin Reid. "We're pretty proud of ourselves the way we came out tonight and battled. I think Mick would be proud that we made it an entertaining one for him."
The fans truly rose to the moment.
A season-best crowd of 4,228 took in the game and heartily supported both teams, who gathered together and shook hands at centre ice when it was over.
"It's not often that you come to a hockey game in Windsor and feel love," said OHL commissioner David Branch. "And that's what we had tonight in that tribute. It was about love and that to me is the most powerful emotion.
"It's a difficult one in a male environment like hockey to really let it out there but that was so evident tonight. It was a very special feeling."