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“It was the biggest thing in town, and everywhere we went, people knew who we were and cared about the team and how the team was doing,” Tavares said. “It was definitely a good way for me to prepare myself for this level.”

Keeping it in the family

Dale and Mark Hunter live hockey, but the Knights aren’t a cold franchise in it for the winning. Scott Tooke, 44, and his wife, Gale, 45, of London, became host parents 10 years ago. Along with other families, they house players during the season for a nominal $75 a week and season tickets.

Scott Tooke recalled an experience after a hard loss years ago when Hunter said: “The sun’ll come up tomorrow. It’s just another game.”

Hard to imagine that coming from the ultra-competitive Hunter, but one of his goals was to let his players have fun. And teach some lessons.

“It’s something that he built, and he takes great pride in it,” said Hunter’s son, Dylan, who played for him and now serves as a Knights assistant coach. “Somebody asked him what he liked the most; it’s not winning as much as growing the kids [and] seeing how they progress.”

Hunter brushes off the credit for molding players from boys into young men, saying “I just had to steer ‘em in the right way.” But it’s much more than that. Hunter houses players, including even now with his girlfriend, Cindy Mac Kinlay, watching after twin forwards Matt and Ryan Rupert.

Defenseman Danny Syvret, who captained that Memorial Cup-winning team, said Hunter was something of a “father figure.” The idea of a London Knights “family” is what Dale wanted to create. Gale Tooke spoke fondly of an annual Christmas dinner with all the players, families, host families and team employees.

Mark and Dale were part of a big family and a close family, and they’ve turned the London Knights into a big family,” said Jim McKellar, who served as assistant GM for 11 years before becoming a Blackhawks scout. ” I can’t even count how many times they’ve taken an interest in, whether the player’s a firefighter or he’s a star in the National Hockey League, these guys are genuinely interested in how these young men have made out after their time with the Knights.”

That’s why it’s not surprising to see Perry and others with no previous connection to London buy houses there. Dylan Hunter met his wife there and now calls the city home. It’s Hunter policy that alums can get free tickets to see a game anytime they want.

Mark Hunter said there’s an open invitation to hang around and “talk hockey and talk about life.”

“Once a player was a London Knight, they said, ‘You’re always a London Knight,” McKellar said. “I think they made people proud to be a London Knight.”

Coming Wednesday:Dale and Mark Hunter share a “hockey brain,” but those who know them best say the brothers are very different.