DETROIT – The defending Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires crossed the Detroit River on Tuesday for some practice time at Joe Louis Arena and to mingle with a few NHL players.
The Spitfires (16-3-0-3) practiced for more than an hour Tuesday morning before sticking around to watch the Red Wings’ practice. The Ontario Hockey League squad, their coaching staff and general manager Warren Rychel then accepted an invitation from Wings general manager Ken Holland to stay for lunch with the Wings’ players in the Manhattan Room at JLA.
“We’re thrilled to have them here,” Holland said. “Obviously, it’s important that we have a relationship. Last year when they were in the playoffs, our staff would go over and Warren would take care of us. … We’re just glad that we can return the favor.”
The Spitfires have a pair of outstanding prospects who will likely be picked in the top-five selections of next summer’s NHL draft. While the odds that either forward Taylor Hall or defenseman Cam Fowler will end up as Red Wings’ draft picks are minuscule, the Wings’ brass was interested in watching them up close.
“They have two players there that obviously are going to go in maybe the top two, but certainly the top five in the NHL draft, so it was nice to watch them,” Holland said.
For a split-second Tuesday, Hall – last spring’s Memorial Cup MVP and the second-ranked prospect by NHL Central Scouting – allowed himself to daydream a bit as he undressed in the visitor’s locker room at JLA.
“I’ve been here for about 3-4 games before, but never skated here before,” said Hall, who leads the OHL with 21 goals and 45 points. “When I first came in here I said, ‘This is where (Wayne) Gretzky sat!’ It’s pretty cool for sure. Hopefully in the near future, I’ll be playing here.”
For Fowler, a Farmington Hills, Mich., native, Tuesday’s JLA visit was routine.
“Being from the Detroit area I’ve had a few opportunities to come here,” said Fowler, the No. 3 rated prospect by Central Scouting. “Actually, when I was really little I was in the shootout that they have in-between periods.
“I’ve always liked Nick Lidstrom. He’s always been an idol to me. I try to style my game to his, and he’s always been an inspiration to me. I actually have met him before through a friend. He gave me a stick that was signed and it’s been in my room ever since.”
While Fowler also hopes to launch an NHL career in the not-so distance future, it was important for him and his Windsor teammates to hear what Holland and Wings coach Mike Babcock had to say when they addressed the Spitfires after practice.
“Anytime that you can hear from an NHL coach, especially Mike Babcock, who has the track record that he has, you have to really pick his brain and hear what he has to say,” said Fowler, who has three goals and 26 assists. “They talk about work ethic and that the guys that make it in the NHL, they all have tremendous work ethic.”
The Wings’ message had a similar effect for Hall. “Both Babcock and Ken Holland were saying how you have to better yourself every day,” he said. “You come into the NHL from junior and it’s an adjustment. You have to work on your game every day and you really have to prepare yourself for the NHL; it’s a different game.”
The experience of skating in an NHL building and chatting up NHL veterans over lunch was even a spectacular opportunity for the entire team, which is the No. 2 ranked junior team in Canada.
“It’s a good experience for our team,” Hall said. “We have a lot of young kids here who haven’t been to an NHL camp such as myself, so it’s a good experience to watch pros and see how they conduct themselves.”
With about eight months before the draft, Fowler reflected on his OHL career up to this point and how simple living in Windsor has been especially with his family only living about 20-minutes across the US-Canadian border.
“It’s been great,” Fowler said. “I went to the national team program and lived away from home there too, but I was also close because I was only in Ann Arbor. It’s great because my family can come across the river and see my games, and if I’m ever feeling homesick or something, I can go home.
“It’s great to get the experience away from home, but at the same time to have the support of your family.”