Hounds. Spirit. Firebirds. Sting. Spitfires. There is bark and there is a motivating force and there is combustion and there is buzz and there is a fiery temperament that lies within the West Division of the Ontario Hockey League.
Soo Greyhounds and the Saginaw Spirit are the clear cut top guns of the wild West. Flint Firebirds have been the middle men, the Sarnia Sting could go either way and the Windsor Spitfires are the unknown. And there are differing levels of pressure and anxiety for all five teams as they skate into the second half of the 2023-2024 OHL season.
• The Greyhounds have already made a clean break from the 2022-2023 season in which they missed the playoffs and general manager Kyle Raftis and head coach John Dean both came under fan fire for not icing a more competitive team. Having such a surprisingly sub par season played a significant role that resulted in Sault Ste. Marie losing out to Saginaw when the OHL selection committee made its choice as to which town — and team — would play host to the 2024 Memorial Cup national championship tournament. At any rate, the Greyhounds are now in position — along with a number of other teams — to join host Saginaw as the two teams from the OHL at the 2024 Memorial Cup.
• Knowing Saginaw general manager Dave Drinkill and the way he operates, there is absolutely no way that he wants the Spirit to be competing against the best of the Canadian Hockey League at the Memorial Cup tournament just because the Spirit is the host entry. Drinkill, who is easily one of the top five GMs in the 20 team OHL, will be hell bent to make sure that the Spirit heads to the Memorial Cup tournament on merit as opposed to the guaranteed entry. Drinkill is hard driven as is his long-time head coach Chris Lazary. And even though Saginaw has its ticket punched to the Memorial Cup event, there is the weight of pressure on Drinkill and Lazary and the players to try to ensure that the Spirit is not an early round casualty in this spring’s OHL playoffs. To that, it is almost imperative that Saginaw goes into the OHL playoffs fresh from a high end regular season run.
• Flint has held serve through the first half of the season and is in playoff position going towards the second half. An early season coaching change from Ted Dent to Paul Flache has worked out okay and the Firebirds, while perhaps lacking overall depth, control their own destiny as far as being one of eight teams that make the playoffs in the Western Conference. Of critical importance is that Flint and Windsor will face off against each other no less than five times in the second half of the season.
• Sarnia made its run last spring when it loaded up and went to the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history. And even though this is a reload of a rebuild season for the Sting, it is in definite range of a playoff spot. After starting this season rather surprisingly well, Sarnia then went into a steep slide and the Sting will be out to show that its early going performance was more than a fling as it pursues an attainable playoff position.
• Over to Windsor, the two time reigning Western Conference regular season leaders got off to such an awful start to this season with a 4-16-1 record that Spitfires general manager Billy Bowler had little choice but to fire first year head coach Jerrod Smith. And the Spitfires were able to reverse course under interim bench boss Casey Torres before the Christmas break. In 10 games with Torres at the helm, the Spitfires changed their flight plan and posted a record of 6-4-0. While the Spitfires are still currently on the outside looking in on a playoff spot for this season, they certainly are not far off the mark. And Torres as the interim head coach has the opportunity to take over as the official leader if the Spitfires can continue their modest ascent and secure a playoff spot.
As the January 10 trade deadline looms, the clock is ticking on, in this case, general managers of the teams in the West Division as they determine whether to stand pat, add veteran talent or move out rostered players in exchange for future draft picks … GMs are often reluctant to trade within their own division. But that has not been the case in the West Division this season. In a mid November trade, Windsor shipped overage forward Alex Christopoulos, 2004 birth year defenseman Rodwin Dionicio and a draft pick to Saginaw for ’04 forward Valentin Zhuyin, overage defender Roberto Mancini and a haul of draft picks that included two second rounders and a fourth. Prior to that, Windsor picked up ’04 defenseman Connor Toms from the Soo for a late round draft pick. And just before that, Saginaw paid big to get ’05 forward Ethan Hay from Flint for six draft picks … Flint GM Dave McParlan recently moved a current asset for future draft picks. Just prior to Christmas, the Firebirds dealt 2006 birth year defenseman Reed Gee and a 12th round draft pick to the Mississauga Steelheads in exchange for third, eighth and 11th round hereafter selections.