Hunters turned London Knights into community passion

Canadian junior team is now the model franchise for league

First in a series

LONDON, Ontario — Old friends sit around the bar at Joe Kool’s on Richmond Street, drinking Alexander Keith’s and talking about Dale Hunter. Across town at Wortley Roadhouse, blocks away from his house, patrons and bartenders tell stories and reminisce.

One of them is Tie Domi, a retired tough guy and veteran of 1,020 NHL games. He’s just a hockey dad now. His 17-year-old son, Max, plays for the London Knights. Hunter and his brother, Mark, have owned the team since 2000.

“Tell Dale my son misses him,” Domi said.

Hunter is away, having been named coach of the Washington Capitals on Nov. 28, 2011. Domi’s message is a common theme in the place Hunter still calls his “hometown.”

Hunter is an institution in London, a city of some 350,000 about 2½ hours from Detroit. It is a result of he and his brother turning the Knights from a laughingstock not too long ago into the New York Yankees of the Canadian Hockey League.

“This is a model now in the CHL,” assistant general manager and assistant coach Misha Donskov said. “You’ve got 16-, 17-, 18-year-old kids playing in front of 9,100 people, and it’s kudos to them. They single-handedly built an empire here.”

It never was about flash and marketing. It was all about doing what the Hunters love most, the combination of hockey and winning. Success on the ice brought in fans, and everything kept snowballing as the Knights became the most desirable place for prospective junior players.

“It’s the old ‘Field of Dreams’ line,” Knights goaltending coach Bill Dark said. “If you build it, they will come.”

‘No turning back’

So the two men who grew up on a farm gambled their financial future that a lifetime in the game could produce a winner, buying the team for about $3.5 million.

“It was a big risk. We put a lot into it,” Mark Hunter said. “It was a lot of money back then, what we put into it, and we were all in. We put all we possibly could, myself and Dale. There was no turning back. If it was turning back, it was having to shovel.”

A childhood growing up on a farm in tiny Petrolia, about 57 miles outside London, prepared the brothers for this undertaking.

“Well, we had to work on the farm. It’s hard work,” their father, Dick, said. “And when they played hockey, that’s the way they played. You had to play hard.”

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.”

Finding winners

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.”

“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.

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