WINDSOR, Ont. — Goaltender Michael DiPietro has experienced all three of Windsor's Memorial Cup championships.
The first two don't even compare to 2017.
"Truly special, especially being from here," DiPietro said after his team downed the Erie Otters 4-3 on Sunday for the Canadian Hockey League championship.
"Family, friends, billets, everything about it, so blessed and grateful."
DiPietro grew up 35 minutes south of Windsor in Amherstburg, Ont., as a Spitfires fan and was in the stands cheering them on when they won back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010.
This time, though, he was the star as Windsor won four games in a row at the tournament, including two against the Ontario Hockey League champion Otters.
"Different perspective, more enjoyment, obviously," DiPietro said in between hugs with family and friends who met him on the ice post-game. "You do so much during the year, for it to pay off is truly amazing."
The 17-year-old netminder made 32 saves and was named the top goaltender at the tournament. Jeremy Bracco led the offence with a goal and two assists, including a set up on Aaron Luchuk's winner early in the third period.
"It comes down to Mikey in the net," Bracco said about the win. "He made some timely saves, he was a rock for us all tournament, all year."
Bracco, a 19-year-old Toronto Maple Leafs prospect who was born in Freeport, N.Y., had a memorable season as he also won world junior gold with the United States.
"Crazy, unbelievable feeling. Any time you get a ring is great," said Bracco, who sported a GoPro camera on his head as he celebrated.
Logan Stanley and Graham Knott also scored for the host Spitfires.
Dylan Strome — the tournament MVP — Warren Foegele and TJ Fergus scored for the Otters.
Troy Timpano stopped 18 shots in defeat and was clearly dejected with the outcome as he tossed his stick from the bench towards a cameraman filming disappointed Otters players.
"Great hockey game. Just sucks to be on this end of it," said Strome.
Windsor is the first team that didn't win their league title to capture the Memorial Cup since the 2012 Shawinigan Cataractes.
The Spitfires had not played since April 4, when they were eliminated by the London Knights in the first round of the OHL playoffs. Windsor went 44 days between games while waiting for the tournament to begin.
"We knew we had something to prove and I think we proved a lot of people wrong," said Bracco.
The sold-out crowd of 6,500 was in it even before puck drop at the WFCU Centre, with 'Go Spits Go' chants starting once the national anthems finished.
Alex DeBrincat, the CHL player of the year, had Erie's first scoring chance but DiPietro took it in his chest with no rebound.
Bracco went back down the ice two shifts later and chose to keep on a 2-on-1 rush, with Timpano getting an arm on it. Bracco then found Knott in alone on Timpano only for the Erie netminder to shut him down with a pad save.
Bracco stayed at it and finally opened the scoring on a Windsor power play, picking the puck out of a scrum in front of the Erie net and sliding it through Timpano with 3:53 to go.
"I think you have to have confidence and trust your abilities. I wanted to come out and step up for the team," said Bracco, who began the year with the Kitchener Rangers before a mid-season trade sent him to Windsor.
But Strome responded only 49 seconds later, beating DiPietro blocker side.
Strome put a shot on net that went in off Foegele's skate and past DiPetro while on the power play at 5:35 of the second.
A video review was needed to determine if a distinct kicking motion was used, but the goal stood and Erie had its first lead of the game despite it appearing to be kicked in by the Otters forward.
Erie didn't hold its lead for long, though, as Stanley tied the game 52 seconds later with a point shot that Timpano couldn't see at 6:27.
Fergus put a point shot on net that hit a Windsor stick and went past DiPietro for a 3-2 advantage with 7:14 remaining in the second.
The Otters were outshooting the Spitfires 10-1 when Windsor went on the power play at 13:24. And the home team took advantage of its opportunity as Gabriel Vilardi found Knott at the side of the net to make it 3-3.
Bracco was still a factor for Windsor in the third as he found a streaking Luchuk for a 4-3 lead 5:07 into the period.
"It's crazy to think about. I had never been traded before or anything like that, it was mixed feelings," said Bracco. "I'm just lucky to have this opportunity."
Erie pushed for the equalizer and controlled the puck for the majority of the third. Strome hit the post with less than two minutes remaining, but couldn't crack DiPietro.
"Posts and crossbars are my best friends," said DiPietro. "I'm just so happy."
Kyle Cicerella, The Canadian Press