Third in a series
LONDON, Ontario — It’s all there in black and white, spiral-bound behind a cover with the line, “London Knights — ‘A Tradition of Excellence.’ ” Eighty-six pages of the Knights’ recruiting guide handed to prospective players, detailing everything from dress codes, game schedules and curfews to local media coverage and schools.
But the pictures of Corey Perry, Patrick Kane, Rick Nash, Dennis Wideman and others tell more than the tens of thousands of words. Quotes from alumni of Dale Hunter’s London Knights are flattering, but the sight of those players in their NHL uniforms under the “Always a Knight” headline conveys the message.
If you can make it here, you can make it in the NHL.
“The way you’re treated is that of a professional and they teach you how to be a professional. I think that’s why they’ve had such a great track record of sending guys to the NHL,” Edmonton Oilers center and London native Sam Gagner said. “It really sets the table for a promising career for a lot of guys.”
More than 20 ex-Knights dot NHL rosters, including five first-round picks. No team in the world, let alone junior hockey, has produced more No. 1 overall picks (five) in history.
Having that kind of pedigree to go along with perennial success in the Ontario Hockey League is what makes the city of 366,000 on King’s Highway between Toronto and Detroit the center of the junior hockey universe.
Building a foundation
It starts early, watching children at the ages of 14 and 15, with Mark Hunter driving his diesel truck 50,000 miles a year on scouting missions. Drafting is half the battle, and the Knights managed to build playoff teams and a Memorial Cup championship group through finding the right guys.
“They seem to be at every minor hockey tournament, and they’re pretty knowledgeable about the game so they can pick through and find the players that they feel fit for the system,” said Danny Syvret, the captain of the Memorial Cup team, who is now a defenseman in the St. Louis Blues’ organization. “Nine times out of 10, the players outperform everyone else.”
Everybody misses here and there, but the Hunters know what they’re looking for.
“Of course everybody wants skill and skating and talent, but you try to find that character, the drive to win,” Mark Hunter said.
But what goes into unearthing winners such as Perry, who led the Knights to the Memorial Cup, captured world junior gold and Olympic gold for Canada, and the Stanley Cup for the Anaheim Ducks? Dale Hunter said it was a product of watching Perry win at every level even as a child, but there’s something intangible there, too.
“Love of the game. You’ve got to love the game. If you don’t love the game, the game will wear you down,” Mark Hunter said. “And you try to make sure you get players that love the game, because there’s a lot of hockey out there and if you don’t love it, it’s not long [until] you don’t want to win.”
That might as well be the mantra for the Hunters’ ownership of the Knights, to love hockey and winning. It’s so transparent that players such as current Knights captain Jarred Tinordi and Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson chose London over playing college hockey.