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Hunters turned London Knights into community passion
Canadian junior team is now the model franchise for league
The hard task was taking a franchise that had won as few as three games in a 66-game season in the mid-1990s and making playoff appearances and championships a habit. When they bought the team, there were 1,200 season-ticket holders, and the old London Ice House was a dilapidated facility on the outskirts of town.
Winning took time. Mark Hunter figures fans started to believe early on, when the Knights pulled off a major upset in his brother’s first season as coach in 2001-02. But the culmination came May 29, 2005. The Knights, led by Anaheim Ducks forward and reigning NHL MVP Corey Perry and playing at home at the glistening 9,100-seat John Labatt Centre, beat Sidney Crosby’s Rimouski Oceanic team to win the franchise’s first Memorial Cup.
“It was awesome. For us, the team was 40 years in the league and we never went to the Memorial Cup, let alone win it. … It’s something you’ll never forget,” Dale Hunter said. “It was one of those things with my whole family there watching and the fans and me and Mark started from scratch. To make it a winner, it was pretty good.”
A championship sure helps, but it doesn’t make a franchise. No, the Hunters built a perennial contender and a season-ticket base that now exceeds 7,000 by unearthing and cultivating talent that’s hard to match around junior hockey.
The list includes Caps defensemen Dennis Wideman and John Carlson, Perry, Rick Nash of the Columbus Blue Jackets, John Tavares of the New York Islanders, Sam Gagner of the Edmonton Oilers, Patrick Kane and David Bolland of the Chicago Blackhawks and Michael Del Zotto and Dan Girardi of the New York Rangers.
Those guys and numerous others who have gone on to the NHL have something in common, according to everyone around the Knights: an innate ability to win.
Perry has won championships at every level; Kane and Bolland just teamed to capture a Stanley Cup in 2010 for the Blackhawks.
Mark Hunter puts about 50,000 miles on his diesel truck every year driving around to find the next Knights superstar.
“They know what they need, they know how to go out and get it,” said Pete James, the so-called “Godfather of Sports” in London who has been a sports radio and TV personality since 1955 and whose banner hangs from the rafters of John Labatt Centre.
“They scour this country and parts of [the United States] to get what they want,” James said.
What they want are players who know how to win. But the road to the Memorial Cup, plenty of playoff appearances and sold-out buildings with more than 9,000 fans is not a one-way street.
“It’s really a winning atmosphere. The way they coach and the way they run the franchise is you go there and you expect to win,” Gagner said. “They’re obviously guys that are well-respected, and they played the game for a long time, so when they talk you listen. If you talk to anybody that plays there, you can’t say enough about their experience and how much they learned during their time there.”
Playing, winning and losing in London is an invaluable experience for youths with aspirations of playing in the pros. Capitals defenseman John Erskine, who played in London before the Hunter Era, recalled driving to the rink and hearing nothing but Knights talk on the radio.
Wideman called playing in London like a “mini NHL.”
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