WINDSOR — There has been some topsy turvy turbulence that has grounded the Windsor Spitfires this season following back to back first place regular season finishes atop the Western Conference of the Ontario Hockey League.
And it came to a head here just 21 games into the 2023-2024 OHL season when first year head coach Jerrod Smith was fired as the Spitfires were sputtering with a league-worst record of 4-16-1. At the time of Smith’s firing, the Spitfires were in a sharp nosedive with eight straight losses that included blown leads and three straight games in which they allowed an alarming 27 goals. Two of the most recent three losses under Smith were at home at the WFCU Centre and fans here were voicing their displeasure with the now former Spitfires bench boss.
The 39-year-old Smith was first hired by the Spitfires as video coach in 2011 and subsequently worked his way up to become an assistant under a succession of head coaches that included Bobby Jones, Bob Boughner, Rocky Thompson, Trevor Letowski and Marc Savard.
Smith had been elevated to head coach during this past off season to replace Savard, who left the Spitfires after two successful seasons to take an assistant coaching job with the Calgary Flames of the National Hockey League.
In a season of head coach firings, Smith became the fifth OHL bench boss in the 20-team league to be replaced in the early going of this 2023-2024 campaign. Earlier, the Flint Firebirds, Owen Sound Attack, Kingston Frontenacs and Niagara Ice Dogs all fired their head coaches.
With Smith ousted after more than a decade of employment with the Spitfires, Casey Torres was subsequently promoted to interim head coach. The 43-year old Torres had joined the Spitfires before the start of the current season as an assistant coach.
“You don’t ever take a job like this expecting things to turn out like this,” Torres told Postmedia. “But that’s hockey and the nature of the business.”
After firing Smith, Spitfires general manager Billy Bowler had planned to make Torres interim co-coach with Andy Delmore. But Delmore, who had been an assistant coach under Smith alongside Torres, opted to resign shortly after Smith was fired.
“I really enjoyed working with them,” Torres said of Smith and Delmore. “I never had a negative word for Jerrod or Andy and I wish I could have done more. But this is a chance to steer things. Clearly, what we were doing was not working and we have to find a way to do things differently.”
Torres is not short on hockey experience. He spent five seasons as an assistant coach in the Ontario Jr. Hockey League with his hometown Kingston Voyageurs and then moved up to the OHL with the Kingston Frontenacs for two years as their video coach before taking a position with the Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League as their Ontario-based scout.
After several years with the Penguins, Torres got back into coaching as an assistant and development coach with the Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League’s in 2021.
Torres has taken his promotion to interim head coach of the Spitfires following the firing os Smith in a bittersweet manner.
“It is disappointing it came about like this,” relayed Torres. “You never want an audition to come across this way but this is how a lot of people get the opportunity and I have to make the most of it. This is a chance to bet on yourself. The biggest thing now is to just try and get better.”
While this edition of the Spitfires is not on par with the team that soared to the aforementioned back-to-back Western Conference regular-season crowns, there are few who are connected to the OHL who feel that Windsor should have been as bad as having the worst record in the league at 4-16-1 while allowing a whopping 125 goals after 21 games at the time of Smith’s firing.
“I do think we have got some pretty talented players here,” Torres noted. “My main focal point is to not worry about the big hole that we created but to just try to get better as we move forward.”
Meanwhile, it didn’t take Torres long to get his first win as the Spitfires interim head coach — and against all odds at that.
In the first game of a five-game road swing and with Torres making his debut as Windsor’s bench boss alongside aforementioned general manager Billy Bowler, the Spitfires strolled into Peterborough and stunned the Eastern Conference-leading Petes by a 5-2 score.