Sault Ste. Marie is home. Windsor is my acquired home, initially through Croatian family on my mother’s side. As a journalist who has been writing about hockey for a living since 1975, my main passion is now with the various minor and junior teams of northern Ontario. But the Windsor Spitfiires of the Ontario Hockey League and its Windsor Arena home of 1975 to 2008 remain high on my chosen and close to one’s heart list of all time fondness and partiality.
To me, they will always be the “good, old” Spitfires of the OHL. Man, so many games and players watched at Windsor Arena, the iconic old barn located at the corner of McDougall and Wyandotte streets in Windsor’s gritty downtown. Windsor Arena first welcomed the Spitfires as an OHL franchise in 1975 before a forced good-bye in 2008.
Actually, Windsor Arena was born long before the Spitfires became members of the OHL in 1975. As in, Windsor Arena was built way back in 1924. And the Spitfires were a power house Tier 2 junior team for a number of years before moving up to the OHL in 1975.
Nicknamed ‘The Barn’ or ‘The Madhouse on McDougall’, Windsor Arena could officially house about 4,400 spectators, including standing room. However, during the early days of the OHL Spitfires under popular head coach and general manager Wayne Maxner, it was not uncommon for more than 5,000 fans to pack the cramped but cozy Windsor Arena. (Apparently the fire marshals were looking the other way.)
Adding to uniqueness of Windsor Arena were the narrow concourses and low ceilings that led to the dressing rooms and concession areas. Then there was the smaller ice surface, which was an asymmetrical 195 feet by 80 feet as opposed to the standard 200 X 85. If utilized properly by the Spitfire coaches, Windsor Arena could be a major advantage for the home team.
But nothing lasts forever and as the years went by and other OHL centres were getting new state of the art facilities to play in, it became apparent that Windsor Arena’s venerable and legendary status as home to the Spitfires was about to come to an end.
Thus, it really came as no surprise that in 2006 — which was a few years before it opened — the WFCU Centre, located in the city’s east side off of Lauzon Road, was approved by the Windsor city council. The decision to move on from Windsor Arena as the home of the OHL Spitfires as the main tenant was attributed to the constrained seating and tiny concourses of the old downtown barn.
For the record, the Spitfires’ final game at Windsor Arena was played on December 4, 2008. Windsor beat the Guelph Storm by a 2-1 score, giving the Spitfires a perfect 12-0 record to begin the 2008-2009 OHL season.
At any rate, this chapter is about Windsor Arena housing the OHL Spitfires back in what yours truly and many others refer to as the “good, old days.” More specifically and to the point, it is about personal flashbacks and recollections of 20 years from 1975 to circa 1995, which was a time period when I had my closest association to the Spitfires.
Concourses and cubby holes. When walking into Windsor Arena from the McDougall Ave. side entrance, you were greeted by the smell of hot dogs, French fries and popcorn. The concourses were small, not the wide open spaces that are seen in newer arenas. And, like me, If you were taller, chances are that you headed to a favourite bar for a few post game beers with a bit of a neck or back pain from trying to navigate the low ceilings. But it was all part of the Windsor Arena experience. Of particular note, the concession stands were created through little cubby holes in the walls, scattered around the concourse of the old barn.
Watching the games. The Spitfires of my hey day were known for tough guys, aka goons, pre-game brawls and rowdy fans who were not for the faint of heart. It was like every word inside the old barn was amplified and no matter where you were seated, the play felt like it was happening all around you. It was like there was no escape. And In the north end, there were a few rows high above the visiting goaltender, with only a metallic rail and some aging mesh separating the rowdies from the goalie, who often could be seen looking over his shoulder.
Pre game food. Easily the best corned beef sandwich I have ever eaten in my life was at Malic’s Delicatessen on Wyandotte St. near the old Windsor Arena. I had my first corned beef sandwich at Malic’s when I was just a kid and I probably had hundreds more over the next 50 years, until it closed. Other great places to eat were the Tunnel Barbecue and Spago. And Spago, to this day, still serves up great Italian food, including its flagship location on Erie St.
Pre game brawls. I will never forget, it was both the 1975-1976 and 1976-1977 seasons. Wayne Maxner was coaching the Spitfires and Muzz MacPherson was coaching the Soo Greyhounds. Both teams had their share of what then were fondly referred to as goons. And both Maxner and MacPherson were known to brag that they had the toughest team in the OHL. Spitfire tough guys included Joey Gallant, Peter Luksa, John Barrett and team scoring leader Brad Smith. Greyhound enforcers were Tim Coulis, Mike Rusin, Tony Horvath, Bill Roach, Tim Rose and Brian Gustafson. (Ironically, the 5-foot-8, 160 pound Gustafson would later be traded from the Greyhounds to the Spitfires, where he earned the nickname ‘Mini Goon.’) At any rate, back to the pre-game brawls, on two separate occasions — one each season — I happened to be at Windsor Arena to watch the Spitfires and Greyhounds do battle. Both times, MacPherson as the Hounds coach, sought me out before the game and said, with a wink: “Whatever you do, don’t miss the warmup.” On the second occasion, I happened to bump into a Windsor police officer who was called to the rink after the pre-game brawl had subsided. He asked me if I saw anything. “I didn’t see anything, man,” came my lying reply.
Post game brews. For me, it was beers — Old Vienna on tap — at one of the Grand Tavern on Howard Ave., Kurley’s on Erie St. or the Penalty Box on Pelissier St. To be sure, Kurley’s and the Penalty Box were definitely go-to places for me. However, my favourite Windsor watering hole of all time, located at 1014 Howard Ave., one building over from Erie St., was the Grand Tavern. It was my favourite bar in Windsor for a number of reasons including the fact that my uncle Steve Ilijanich owned it and tended bar at it for 56 years until he closed it in 2011 when he was at the tender age of 85. And I loved, loved, loved my uncle Steve. And I loved, loved, loved drinking OV on tap at the Grand whether it was my uncle Steve or his brother Johnny or his son, my cousin Steven, tending bar. The number of hockey people who I had occasion to have a beer with over the years at the Grand included the likes of Spitfire coaches Wayne Maxner and Brad Smith, Spitfire players Cory Evans and Billy Bowler, TSN hockey insider Bob McKenzie and CKWW play by play announcer Dave Quinn. The list of friends from both Windsor and Sault Ste. Marie who I had beers with over the years at the Grand is a lengthy — but highly memorable — collection of thirsty souls. Meanwhile, my uncle Steve’s Grand Tavern featured only one item on its food menu, which was the Polish sausage on a bun from nearby Brenner Packers. To this day, I have never tasted a Polish sausage as good as the ones from Brenner Packers that my uncle Steve served up at the Grand. And also to this day, my favourite bar of all time — no matter the city, the province or the country — is the Grand Tavern at 1014 Howard Avenue in good, old Windsor, Ontario.
Favourite Spitfire staffers. My favourite Spitfire players appear in another chapter. As for my favourite coaches and general managers and scouts and owners, there were a number of good people who I felt I could trust. They were definitely good enough people to have a beer or two with — and/or an off the record conversation with. That list includes coach-GM Wayne Maxner, GMs Terry McDonnell, Jim Rutherford and Mike Awender, coaches Marcel Pronovost, John Becanic, Tom Webster, Brad (Motor City Smitty) Smith, Mike Kelly and Kevin McIntosh, scouts Tom Couvillion and Steve Richardson, trainer Aaron Moroney, part owner Vince Bassman and marketing manager Steve Horne. The Spitfires had other owners and partners in their Windsor Arena glory days of yesteryear and I remember most of them by name. But none of them were as easy to deal with as the aforementioned Vince Bassman.
As for now. My association to Windsor continues. My son lives there — his house is not far from old Windsor Arena — and he is a criminal defense lawyer. So, I still spend a lot of time in Windsor, though many of my favourite old haunts have closed, including Windsor Arena and my uncle Steve’s Grand Tavern, which is now a parking lot. I can’t walk past Windsor Arena or where my uncle’s bar once stood without becoming awash with memories. Good memories. I still frequent Kurley’s Bar on Erie when I am in town and Spago remains a favourite place to eat. But there will never be another place to watch an OHL game like ancient Windsor Arena.
Windsor Spitfires warming up before a game at old Windsor Arena.