During my trip to Detroit last week, I found out that naturally the Red Wings were in DC and wouldn't play at Joe Louis Arena until after I left. I then looked into other options and found out that the Windsor Spitfires would be playing at home, so I bought a ticket and took my passport across the border to WFCU Centre.
Being mostly an NHL aficionado, I knew some about the OHL, but had never been to an OHL game, or to Canada at all for that matter. I remembered that the Spitfires had won two straight Memorial Cups recently, but I walked into the building not realizing the Spitfires were in full rebuild mode. They did have two excellent players on the roster that caught my eye, and I would be surprised if one of them didn't play in the 2012 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Windsor this Winter.
It was quite an entertaining game, despite the final score of 6-2 for the visiting Frontenacs. The building was smaller than an NHL arena, but it was a bright, clean building with good fans. I sat next to a couple of old French-Canadian guys who grumbled at bad technical hockey and got excited about smart plays.
I'm glad I bought a program, since I wouldn't have known who anyone was, really, except for Panthers' D Erik Gudbranson's younger brother, Alex Gudbranson, who suited up for Kingston. He played a strong game after an early hooking penalty just 91 seconds into the game, and finished +3. World Junior goalie and Stars 1st round pick Jack Campbell started the game and let in all 6 goals. He has since been traded to Sault Ste. Marie as the Spits continue their rebuild.
Two Windsor players caught my attention. The first was the guy gracing the cover of the program, a Russian center named Alexander Khokhlachev. "Koko" was drafted by the Bruins in the second round of this year's draft (40th overall), and you could immediately see why. While only 5'10 and 172 pounds, Koko led the team on the stat sheet and in hockey IQ. He is excellent at hiding the soft spots in the other team's coverage. Once he gets the puck, Koko has great hands in traffic and vision, able to set up teammates well. He is the team leader in assists and points and picked up a helper with less than a minute to go in the second period. He was at the end of his line shift when the puck was dumped in the Kingston zone. With his linemates off the ice, Koko seized the opportunity to forecheck and got the puck back to teammate Grant Webermin. Koko went to the front of the goal to screen the goalie on Craig Duininck's shot from the point, nearly getting a deflection, to send the Spits to the locker room down by only one goal. Considering the small Russian took a pounding trying to bury a rebound in front of the Kingston cage earlier in the game, it was good to see him go right back to the front of the net.
The second player to catch my attention first caught my eye when he got a tricky shot from the point through traffic to the net. I immediately looked him up to find out he was 16-year old Adam Bateman. While Bateman didn't get a lot of ice time and finished the game -1, he made the most of his ice time with steady, mature play well above his age. Defensemen don't usually make flashy plays, but Bateman made plays that Caps D Karl Alzner would call "sexy." He was caught defending a 2-on-1 and was in perfect position to cut off a pass, forcing the Kingston forward to shoot. He had solid positional play in front of his own goal and didn't try to make fancy plays with the puck, he made the smart pass every time. The play that most impressed me was when Bateman had the puck in the neutral zone, a teammate skated into his path, stopping Bateman in his tracks just in time for a Frontenac to deliver a solid shoulder-to-chest bodycheck. Not only did Bateman stay on his feet, he kept the puck. I could tell from his body language he made the decision not to pass the puck in the split second before the hit, instead keeping the puck and making a smart pass after the hit rather than give it away. Heady stuff for a 16-year old. Bateman's strength issues against older players did show up, but he wasn't terribly outmatched. He also had a giveaway in the final minute of play with his team down 4 goals as he tried to skate the puck out of his zone, but his teammates were running around in their own zone at that point instead of putting together an organized breakout. I'd be surprised if Bateman didn't star against players his own age in the U-17 World Hockey Challenge, which starts December 29 in Windsor.