Memorable route to the Memorial Cup

A few hours from now, Austin McEneny will lace up his skates and step onto the ice for the opening game of the Memorial Cup — the apex of major junior hockey in this country.

He’s excited, focused, and, quite frankly, surprised.

“I never thought I would be in this situation,” said the Windsor Spitfires defenceman — and for good reason.

The road he travelled to get here wasn’t exactly smooth.

Windsor, which is hosting this year’s tournament, is the latest stop in a four-year journey that started when McEneny, a Waterdown native, was passed over at the Ontario Hockey League draft.

Since then he has suited up for Blyth Academy, the Jr. A Burlington Cougars, the Jr. B Caledonia Corvairs and the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He returned to Quebec at the start of this season, but left midway through training camp — he wanted to be closer to home.

McEneny hadn’t been on waivers long when the Spitfires called in September. The team was tipped off to his talent and offered him a tryout, or as head coach Rocky Thompson puts it, “we thought it was worth a look.”

He quickly liked what he saw.

“When Austin came in on that very first day, we knew he could pass the puck and we identified strengths in his game,” Thompson said. “He exceeded our expectations.”

As the season went on, the 20-year-old was given more and more opportunity — particularly after blueliner Logan Stanley tore his meniscus. The Winnipeg Jets first rounder missed 26 games after surgery along with the first round of the playoffs, which allowed McEneny to play his way into Windsor’s Top-4.

The secret to his success is simple, said Thompson. Literally.

“It’s simple hockey,” he added. “He can defend, he’s a good utility guy, he kills penalties, and, like I said, he has the ability to move pucks very effectively. That’s his game and that’s what he has to do and do effectively, and he’s helped us out all year by being that guy.”

The Spitfires open the national championship against the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs tonight at the WFCU Centre. It’s their first game since being ousted by the London Knights in the opening round of the OHL playoffs April 4.

The loss of that series — a seven-game affair in which the Knights battled back from a 3-1 deficit — was devastating for McEneny and his teammates, but there was an upside. In a season in which several star players were sidelined — on top of Stanley, Logan Brown, Jeremiah Addison, Gabe Vilardi and Hayden McCool all missed chunks of the campaign with injuries — the 45-day hiatus that ensued gave the Spitfires time to heal, train, prepare.

For the past six weeks the team has hit the weights, practised or scrimmaged (at times with members of the varsity squad from the University of Windsor) almost daily. Players bickered and tempers flared, said Cristiano DiGiacinto, “but it was good because the speed, I think, increased over time and the strength of our guys and the pace just slowly got better and better.”

“We’re stronger, faster, and we’re ready to go,” the Hamilton-born forward added.

On top of the Sea Dogs, the Spitfires will have to get by the Erie Otters and the Western Hockey League’s Seattle Thunderbirds in order to win their third Memorial Cup in less than a decade. While they don’t enter the tournament as OHL champions, they aren’t necessarily underdogs either.

With Stanley back in the lineup — an addition that will bump McEneny into the No. 5 slot — Windsor’s coaching staff will have access to every player in its arsenal for the first time this season. That includes 10 NHL picks or prospects and others such as Vilardi and goaltender Michael DiPietro, who are both expected to have their names called early in this year’s draft.

“It gives us a great opportunity to have more success than we’ve experienced in the past because we are healthy and we have so many parts that are dangerous and that are effective in their own way,” said Thompson. “It’s like any team — when they’re healthy, they’re more dangerous, and I believe this has made us more dangerous.”

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