To be sure, it was a team effort that won the Windsor Spitfires their third Memorial Cup in the past nine seasons. From Michael DiPietro’s clutch goaltending to Mikhail Sergachev’s calm excellence on the blueline to Gabe Vilardi’s puck possession up front, the 4-3 win over Erie was a collective result. But Jeremy Bracco’s infectious energy and three points – including the tone-setting first goal of the game – definitely made a difference.
“He was unbelievable all tournament,” said linemate Logan Brown. “He’s a gamer. Like Mike Babcock said, he’s a serial winner. All he does is win.”
Indeed, Bracco, the Toronto Maple Leafs prospect, had already earned a championship with Team USA this season, helping the Americans to gold at the world juniors and playing a crucial role with a shootout goal against the Russians in the semifinal. That clutch play caught the eyes of the Spitfires, who then acquired him from the Kitchener Rangers as soon as the tournament ended. The culmination of that deal came Sunday night, when Bracco’s speed and doggedness mixed with his skill in a Mitch Marner-esque way to handcuff the Otters on multiple occasions.
“He was sick,” said GM Warren Rychel. “This is why we traded for Bracco. He lives at my house, he never shuts up, but I’ll tell you what – he can talk all he wants now.”
Bracco is on the chatty side and his personality definitely shows on the ice. A Bracco goal is an exuberant one, as he demonstrated when he opened the scoring against Erie in the first period, hurling himself into the glass in celebration. For a team that had a six-week layoff between the OHL playoffs (where they lost a first-round heartbreaker to London) and hosting the Memorial Cup, that kind of energy was crucial to Windsor’s success. The Spitfires went undefeated in the end and noticeably put the screws to the Otters in the third period. Sure, Dylan Strome and Anthony Cirelli’s two lines were still pressing near the end, but Erie couldn’t stack all four of their lines up against the well-conditioned Spitfires. When Erie grabbed leads in the game, Windsor responded almost immediately, tying the game back up twice before taking the lead for good on an Aaron Luchuk goal in the third, assisted by Bracco.
“Whatever happened in those forty days,” Rychel said, “the boys caught a bolt of lightning and ran with it.”
Getting knocked out early in the OHL playoffs could have been the death-knell for the Spitfires, but if anything, the team found another level of chemistry in that time off. Once the Memorial Cup began, they were right at the top with Erie as the best teams and Windsor came away with the round robin victory. While injuries to key players such as Brown and Logan Stanley hurt the Spitfires in the regular season, the layoff brought good fortune. And thanks to Rychel’s in-season deals for Bracco and Sean Day, the team was stacked the way a Cup champion usually is. The key was integrating the new family members.
“They took me in right away,” Bracco said. “Warren took me into his home and taught me how to be a pro and I’m grateful for that.”
While key players such as Bracco, Sergachev and Jalen Chatfield will turn pro next season, the Spits won’t be destitute: DiPietro will return as the ace starter in net, Brown will continue to fill out down the middle and Vilardi will continue his growth as a deadly force up front.
After the game, Sergachev mused that he’s excited to get another shot at the NHL with Montreal next season, but can’t help think about how much fun he has had in two seasons with Windsor. For now, the whole organization can celebrate and worry about the future later. Because when they needed to be the most aggressive team on the ice, the Spitfires came through. And Bracco led the charge.
“I think that’s what really defines a player,” he said. “When you have a big game, you either show up or hide.”
And Windsor hid from no one at this tournament.