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The Straight Edge: Hockey provides escape for struggling OHL cities

Taylor Hall has helped lead the Spitfires to a 51-6-1 record this season. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

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Taylor Hall has helped lead the Spitfires to a 51-6-1 record this season. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

The intersection between communities and sports is often a heartfelt one, especially in the major junior ranks. From the billets who take in kids who go on to be NHLers (or solid citizens in other careers, for that matter) to the volunteers at the rinks and the fans who pack the buildings, there’s a love there.

So when times get tough, sometimes the best thing to do is get away from the brutal realities of life and watch the home team take to the ice in their colors – your colors.

Nowhere is that more evident right now than in two automotive cities in Southern Ontario: Windsor and Oshawa.

In Windsor, the daily headlines in the newspaper are constantly clashing in emotions: Jobs are bleeding out of the region, but the Spitfires are having their best season ever, perhaps one of the best seasons in Ontario League history.

Built by owners and ex-NHLers Warren Rychel (GM) and Bob Boughner (coach), the Spits have been a juggernaut thanks to big names such as Taylor Hall, Ryan Ellis and Greg Nemisz. Rychel, who hails from the area, is very aware of the situation on the ground in Windsor in relation to Ford, GM and Chrysler.

“A lot of my friends work at the Big Three,” Rychel noted. “And times are tough.”

Not only are auto jobs being cut, but as Rychel points out, the feeder industries – car parts, for example, suffer alongside.

“We’re out in the community a lot,” he added. “And they’re talking about it a lot, in the rinks, in the restaurants.”

But Windsor is going through a renaissance right now. Not only does the team hold the best record in the league at a staggering 51-6-1, but the Spits also introduced new uniforms this year and moved into a new arena. Not only that, but sources have told The Hockey News the team is close to securing the services of top prospects Cam Fowler and Richard Panik for next season.

Despite the economic climate, the Spits are packing home games and building the fan base. For Rychel, a Memorial Cup would naturally be the ultimate gift to the city.

“We want to do it for Windsor,” he said. “We want to bring a championship here.”

A five-hour drive northeast of Windsor, Oshawa is just as much entwined in the auto industry, so much so that the hometown Generals play at the General Motors Centre. Up until very recently, Gens fans could forget about the layoffs and economic strife by looking toward a young man who put up record-setting numbers named John Tavares.

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Now, of course, J.T. is property of the London Knights. With the team naturally struggling since the departure of one of the best junior players ever, things are not as rosy in Oshawa.

“I really felt we would have been better keeping John and have him break all the records as an Oshawa General,” said Karon Shepperdson, president of the team’s booster club. “I don’t think we would have made the Memorial Cup this year, but I think we probably could have gone a couple rounds.”

Shepperdson’s dedication to the Gens is as deep as anyone’s. Her mother was the original founder of the booster club 39 years ago and the family has taken turns with the presidency over the years. Karon has held the title since 1990. One of her duties involves organizing bus tours for away games and despite the financial devastation in the region (Shepperdson and her husband work for Ontario Hydro, not the auto industry), the booster club still boasts a road crew of 100-125 fans.

Though the team’s record isn’t as good as Windsor’s, the same escape is possible.

“If you’re going to a Gens game, you talk about the Gens,” she said. “On the bus, we’re usually talking about the Gens – or playing cards.”

The work talk is reserved for the bars and restaurants around town. And from Windsor to Oshawa and every other town where the jobs just aren’t there anymore, a hometown team can at least give the folks something to cheer about during a long, cold winter.

Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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