The Saginaw Spirit have morphed into a very different looking organization entering the 2016-17 Ontario Hockey League season - from the players on the ice, to the coaching staff and front office, all the way up to the ownership group.
The architect behind the transformation is Spirit General Manager Dave Drinkill. It began over a year ago when Drinkill came to Saginaw from the Barrie Colts, where he had started in-house as a team statistician in 2006, working his way up to assistant GM in 2011.
Following the 2015-16 season, Drinkill drafted well in his first OHL priority selection draft as GM (back in April) before embarking on a crazy summer, bringing in Spencer Carbery as the new head coach, and Chris Lazary as associate coach.
He also added Brandon Naurato and Sean Perkins from Total Package Hockey as skill Development coaches, and Aaron Maurer as the team’s strength and conditioning coach, positions which are new to the Spirit organization, created by Drinkill.
“It's been a very busy summer for myself and the organization, but an exciting one,” Drinkill said. “Last year was a bit of an evaluation year for me, coming to a new organization. So, at the end of the year I sat down with the ownership and we put together a plan of what I thought needed to take place to get our team to the next level and be an elite franchise, and that included finding the right coach and finding the right associate coach.
“Bringing in Spencer Carbery as our head coach was a huge addition, I think he's going to be a huge star in this league as a head coach. We added skill development coaches, we added a strength coach, there's a lot of adds to the organization, but it's all about building the program off the ice and that will translate to on the ice. We're all very excited, including the ownership group and it's been a busy time, but a very exciting time.”
Drinkill looks to the defending Memorial Cup champion London Knights as a team with a blueprint for success. He sees London as an organization which the Spirit can emulate, and eventually surpass.
“In the OHL you always want to be ahead of the curve and maybe London got ahead of some teams early, and maybe that's why they've been successful,” Drinkill said. “I think jealousy is a form of flattery. You know, you look at London and ask: 'do I want to do what London does?' Well, the answer is absolutely, because they're Memorial Cup champions and I want to be a Memorial Cup champion.”
“I'm sure London is going to do more to try and get ahead of the curve again because people are going to emulate what they're doing. But now that we are doing what they do off the ice and building our program, now it's my job to get ahead of London and start out-thinking them a little bit and make sure that we stay ahead of the curve.”
Perhaps, Drinkill's biggest move this summer was the addition of Detroit Red Wings' second round draft pick (53 overall) from the 2016 NHL draft, 18 year old defenseman Filip Hronek from the Czech Republic.
Drinkill worked his magic during the 2016 NHL draft June, 24-25 in Toronto, ON getting confirmation that, if the Spirit drafted Hronek in the upcoming CHL import draft (which was on June, 28 just three days after the NHL draft) he would commit to playing in the OHL as opposed to the Czech Extraliga, the Czech Republic's top professional hockey league for the 2016-17 season.
“It goes back to a little before the import draft,” Drinkill said. “At the NHL draft, you know, you go to that draft as an OHL General Manager, you're trying to get connections for the European draft, and obviously the European draft is tough because you don't see those players play, it's very much connections, agents, teams, those kind of things.
“So, when Detroit took Filip, you know, it was an instant call to that organization asking would you have an interest in him playing in the OHL, and absolutely they would because we are an hour and a half up the road and they can come and watch him, and help him develop. It kind of snow-balled from there, we were fortunate to get him fourteenth overall in the draft and the rest is history, and we are happy to have him.”
The Spirit also have three new additions to the ownership group. Prior to the start of training camp Majority Owner/Governor Richard Garber and President/Managing Partner Craig Goslin held a press conference announcing the new ownership group.
Joining the organization are new Spirit Alternate Governor (former Detroit Red Wings GM) Jimmy Devellano, new Spirit Partner (former Red Wing goal tender) Chris Osgood, and new Spirit Partner (Saginaw businessman) Brandon Bordeaux.
Goslin talked about the impact of having a local business owner and two NHL legends join the Spirit organization and the importance of having their experience in both the business and hockey world's respectively.
“Just adding Brandon Bordeaux, locally, on the business side, he brings a whole other layer of support for the Spirit project which is really important for us,” Goslin said. “Bringing Chris Osgood and Jim Devellano in is great.
“There's ten Stanley Cups between the two of them. When you win one, they may say that you fooled around and won a cup, when you win two, they may say you know a little something, but when you've won ten, I think that really says something. They may know a little something about winning, so we're really excited to have them on board and they are totally committed to the Spirit and building the culture of a champion here in Saginaw.”
Bordeaux, a Saginaw native who played High School Hockey for Nouvel Catholic Central H.S. and is the Chairman and CEO of Caravan Facilities Management of Saginaw jumped at the opportunity to join the Spirit ownership group, and he echoed what Drinkill said about following the London blueprint for success.
“I think what Dick (Garber) has done, and Craig Goslin with bringing us in and giving us the opportunity is big,” Bordeaux said. Bringing in Chris Osgood and Jimmy D it kind of brings a little more credibility to the organization, and puts us on the map. You know, London is the pinnacle, and hopefully the fans will support this and see that we are investing in Saginaw and we want to build a winner for Saginaw and Saginaw County.”
Bordeaux will also continue to help build the Junior Spirit travel hockey program where he coaches his son's 07 Junior Spirit team which is based out of the Greater Saginaw Amateur Hockey Association at Saginaw Bay Ice Arena.
“It started years ago when J.J. Bamberger put this program together,” Bordeaux said. Now, with the Junior Spirit logo on our sweater's, we're on the map too,” Bordeaux said. “We're known as a legit travel team. Playing out of Saginaw's GSAHA, we're getting known everywhere and people want to come to Saginaw for tournaments now.”
Goslin also spoke of building a culture of winning in Saginaw with the addition of Carbery and Lazary behind the Spirit bench. “It starts with our coaching staff, Spencer Carbery and Chris Lazary, Goslin said. “It's really exciting, these guys have won and they know what it looks like. Spencer won twenty-three straight games two seasons ago and he won his last sixteen games last year. We're hoping that winning culture permeates through the Saginaw Spirit this year and for years to come.”
Spirit veteran Mitchell Stephens, a second round draft pick (33 overall) of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2015 NHL draft, is one of eight Spirit players who will be in an NHL training camp throughout the first couple weeks of the OHL season.
Stephens likes what he sees in this new-look team. Just a few short years ago, he was the new guy in camp and now he's playing the role of older brother and mentor as he helps the new Spirit players prepare for their OHL career. “We have a lot of guys who are ready to step up their roles for sure,” Stephens said. “I'm excited for what's to come in the future and their development. A lot of guys have impressed me in this camp, they could be guys who either develop in the future or they could step in right away. It's exciting to see how much work everyone has put in and how talented they are, and one day they could be in my situation as a fourth year guy and leader of this team. We have a really good team this year, we're a lot older.”
“You know, I thought that we kind of underachieved last year,” continued Stephens. “So, with the guys we have in our locker room anything can happen really. You know with Guys like 'Benny' (Kris Bennett) and 'Hodger' (Hayden Hodgson) and now, with the pickup of (C.J.) Garcia, so our veteran core is huge and we have a lot of guys who have a lot of experience in the league so it's exciting to see as we move forward here.”
Second year forward Tye Felhaber leads a talented group of second and third year players on the Spirit roster. He added to what Stephens and Goslin said about building a winning atmosphere in Saginaw, while noting the impact of the off-ice training program.
“I noticed the first day of camp that everybody was in great shape coming in from the off-ice (training) and even for the on-ice and in the scrimmages, everyone was going hard,” Felhaber said. “We expect bigger things this year and that's definitely started right away on the first day of training camp with the new fitness testing. We want a winning attitude in here, we want a winning atmosphere, and you know, you've got to start it and be a leader right away and I felt like I tried my best to do that in the first couple (pre season) games to put an edge on the guys and set a tone and teach by example.”
The defense and goal tending are in better shape than ever before in Saginaw. The addition of former Guelph Storm captain, overage defenseman C.J. Garcia, and Hronek who will join veteran's Markus Neimelainen, a third round pick (63 overall) of the Edmonton Oilers in the 2016 NHL draft, and Keaton Middleton, a fourth round pick (101 overall) of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2016 NHL draft to create one of the best rear guard's in team history.
Throw in Spirit veteran Marcus Crawford who came into camp with something to prove, and starting goal tender Evan Cormier, a draft pick of the New Jersey Devils in the 2016 NHL draft, and the defense should shine this year. “We have three NHL drafted defensemen, and our goalie (Evan Cormier) as well, and Marcus Crawford has come into camp looking fabulous, he's in great shape, Goslin said. “Our back end is as good as it's ever been here in Saginaw. So, that along with the good goal tending we feel we have, you know they say defense and goal tending wins championships, if that's the case then we should be in good shape to compete.”
The Spirit will kick off the 2016-17 OHL season on Wednesday Sep 21 with a rivalry game on the road against the Flint Firebirds at the Dort Federal Event Center where they will try to win the second annual Coors Light I-75 Divide Cup which goes to the team with the best head-to-head record between Saginaw and Flint. The Spirit have a bad taste left from last year when the Firebirds' won the inaugural Coors Light I-75 Divide Cup. Goslin expressed his desire to win that Cup and another Cup as well.
“The Coors Light I-75 Divide Cup is alive and well,” Goslin said. “You know, they won it last year, now we want to win it back. We know they're going to compete, no question about it, they've got a good young team there with a lot of good players in Flint, we know it won't be easy but it's a cup that we want. There's two Cup's that we want, we want the Memorial Cup, and we want the Coors Light I-75 Divide Cup and if we get those two we'll be smiling at the end of the season.”
The Spirit will travel to Guelph, ON for a road game on Friday Sep 23 against the Guelph Storm before returning to the Dow Event Center Saturday Sep 24 for the home opener against the Storm as well.
Drinkill has taken it as a personal challenge to build a winning tradition, returning Saginaw to it's hockey glory days of the 1970's where winning and championships were the norm. It looks like he's off to a good start. “Packing this building is our goal,” Drinkill said. “But I understand, and I take it personally that it's my job to make sure this team is a good enough team to pack the building and that's going to happen here and I think it's going to be an exciting time when it does.”
16th November, 2023