LONDON, Ontario | Dennis Wideman just missed the London Knights’ Memorial Cup team. But the Washington Capitals defenseman got to be part of the transformation of the franchise by Dale Hunter and his brother Mark.
“I think it all started probably the year before I got there with Rick Nash. They got him [fourth] overall and then the next year after that in the draft they got Corey Perry. We eventually got better,” Wideman said. “And my first year there, we just made the playoffs, lost in the first round to Erie. And then we slowly got better and it ended up five years later winning the Mem Cup.”
When Wideman arrived, traded there from the Sudbury Wolves in the middle of the 2000-01 season, the Knights still played at the old London Ice House on the outskirts of the town.
“That arena was terrible, and it was uncomfortable to watch games in,” Wideman said. “It was a little bit of a farther drive for people.”
It was an outdated facility, the site of which is now a shopping mall. But the Hunters and the city of London teamed up to get the John Labatt Centre built downtown.
“It was a city they knew they needed a new arena. The old Ice House has had its day. It’s like the old Cap Centre. It was done and this, they needed it,” Mark Hunter said. “I thought they made a great move for downtown. It’s huge; you’ve got the boxes. It’s a mini-Air Canada Centre.”
It’s a glistening tribute to the Hunters’ success with the Knights, the 9,400-seat arena on Dundas Street.
And it’s the main thing Wideman pointed to when considering how much Dale and Mark Hunter have done.
“I think the town loves their Knights. They’ve sold out every game since they built that new arena, basically,” the defenseman said. “I think the biggest difference is they built the new arena and put it downtown. … When they built the new arena downtown, people got excited about it.”