They represent two gritty industrial towns while surrounded by the scenic splendor of mid and lower Michigan. Separated by about 35 exits along Interstate 75, Flint Firebirds and Saginaw Spirit are an emerging Ontario Hockey League rivalry.
The Firebirds are relatively new to the OHL and about to enter their third OHL season in Flint after relocating from the Detroit suburb of Plymouth while formerly known as the Whalers.
The Spirit, on the other hand, has been established in Saginaw since 2002 upon acquisition of assets formerly belonging to the erstwhile North Bay Centennials.
Ergo, Flint and Saginaw have only been OHL rivals for two years, though the Michigan towns have a prior history as iconic foes from the infamous, now-disbanded, International Hockey League.
And while the Flint Generals and Saginaw Gears will always share fond space in the annals of barn-burning, albeit minor-pro goon hockey, the OHL is now where current history is being made along the I-75 highway.
As nearby rivals, the Firebirds and Spirit have somewhat similar expectations preparatory to the 2017-2018 season as members of the highly-competitive Western Conference of the OHL.
Flint, after putting up 72 points and finishing seventh in the tough Western Conference in 2016-2017, will be looking to at least retain its playoff seeding in 2017-2018.
Saginaw, on the flip side, will be out to try to make a return to the playoffs in 2017-2018 after just missing with 63 points and a ninth-place finish in 2016-2017.
Both teams are flush with young talent.
Four of Flint’s top pick picks from the 2017 OHL draft have already signed with the Firebirds — forward Ethan Keppen, defenseman Marcus Gretz, goalie Luke Cavallin and blueliner Zack Pilon.
Add those youngsters to Flint’s top three picks from the 2016 OHL draft who debuted with the Firebirds as rookies in 2016-2017 — forwards Ty Dellandrea and Hunter Holmes and defenseman Dennis Busby — and the Firebirds have a solid foundation for the future in place.
On the more-experienced side, well-seasoned forwards Ryan Moore and Nick Caamano are top scorers from 2016-2017 who will no doubt be big producers again in 2017-2018 while 6-foot-6 Fedor Gordeev figures to emerge as a blueline leader after being a National Hockey League draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs this summer.
On the management and coaching end, the Firebirds are in the very good hands of well-prepared, even-keeled general manager Barclay Branch and rising bench boss star Ryan Oulahen. Oulahen, to be sure, was very impressive as a first-year head coach in 2016-2017.
Up in the stands, Flint fans have quickly become known for their passion, something Dellandrea noted as a rookie during the 2016-2017 season.
“They’re wild, they’re really into the game and they’re always on your side no matter what,” Dellandrea said of the Flint faithful. “They love the scrums, big hits and the goal-scoring and they like to get on the opposition sometimes, which really brings the game to life.”
Meanwhile, north of Flint along the I-75 at Saginaw, the Spirit looms as a formidable force for the future with so much young talent.
The roster of 1999 and 2000 birth year players who have already debuted in Saginaw boasts promise and potential and includes forwards Brady Gilmour (an NHL draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings), Cole Coskey, D.J. Busdeker, Damian Giroux, Maxim Grondin and Danny Katic and defensemen Hayden Davis and Brock Hill.
Of note, Giroux (Sudbury), Grondin (Hearst) and Katic (Timmins) are all northern Ontario products.
Then there are a pair of 2000 birth year dandies who committed to Saginaw during this off season after being draft picks in 2016 — forward Blade Jenkins and defensemen Caleb Everett. Jenkins was Saginaw’s first round pick at the 2016 draft.
Jenkins and Everett are both Michigan products and are looking forward to playing in Saginaw.
“It’ll be very special to have my parents up in the stands every night,” relayed Jenkins. “I’ve heard nothing but good things about playing in Saginaw. The fans here are really supportive and it’s a great environment to play in.”
As for Everett, he sees a good future in Saginaw.
“I think we’re going to have a good group of guys here and I’m looking forward to helping make good things happen,” said the big defender.
Saginaw has also signed 2017 first-rounder Nick Porco, a 2001 birth-year forward from Sault Ste. Marie who the Spirit took fourth overall at the April 8 minor midget draft.
To be sure, despite all of the plum potential, Saginaw remains a very young squad heading into the upcoming 2017-2018 season, though the Spirit should get a boost from the expected return of New Jersey Devils prospect Evan Cormier as an overage goalie.
Led by Cormier, the Spirit challenged for a Western Conference playoff spot until the latter portion of the 2016-2017 regular-season schedule only to finish in ninth place.
Indeed, the 63 points that Saginaw put up were more than three teams who made the playoffs in the Eastern Conference — Sudbury Wolves, Ottawa 67’s and Niagara IceDogs.
Like Flint, Saginaw is also well led.
Hard-working, detailed GM Dave Drinkill is prepping for his third term as the Spirit hockey boss while Troy Smith is set for his first season in Saginaw after more than 10 years of prior OHL coaching experience with the Kitchener Rangers and Hamilton Bulldogs.
To be sure, Drinkill is anxious to work alongside Smith, his hand-picked head coach.
“Troy’s experience as a player and a coach in the OHL sets him apart,” Drinkill said of Smith, his off-season hire, who as an OHL player, skated for the aforementioned Plymouth Whalers.
“Troy brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to our staff and to the young group of talented players we have assembled the past few seasons. I am excited to work with Troy as we continue to build and develop through the draft and stay focused on our current path,” Drinkill added.
The Firebirds and Spirit will again compete for the Coors Light I-75 Divide Cup during the regular season series of games between the two rivals.