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“They spotted Johnny [Carlson], invited him up,” said the “Godfather of Sports” Pete James, a longtime radio and TV personality in London. “We all thought Johnny was going to go to university. We thought he was going to go to school in Boston or whatever, but he said, ‘This is where I want to be, because it’s going to be the fast track to where I really want to be and that’s in the NHL.’ “

Tough love

Dale Hunter left the Knights on Nov. 28 to coach the Capitals on a one-year deal. He has a my-way-or-the-press-box philosophy that has caused some veterans in Washington to bristle, but at the junior level it teaches an important lesson.

“I try to prepare them to play at the next level,” he said. “Some guys come in and say, ‘I’m just a winger.’ I go ‘No, no, no, you play all over. You play center and wing because you never know what situation you’re going to be in.’ I try to prepare them and I warn them what it’s like up here.”

Gagner said he realized right away that Hunter was right: You can’t take a game off in the NHL and expect to not get demoted.

Chicago Blackhawks forward Dave Bolland lit up the OHL to the tune of 130 points in 59 games, but he became a top checking-line center in the NHL thanks to Hunter, who housed him for three months and fed him advice along with breakfast.

“No question it helped him, mainly because Dale taught him to be a two-way hockey player,” said his father, Drew Bolland. “Dale emphasized that just as a goal-scorer he won’t make it in the NHL.”

Players said practices are just like in the pros, often at John Labatt Centre under the banners of Brendan Shanahan, Nash, Perry, and Hall of Famers Dino Ciccarelli and Darryl Sittler — reminders of the potential that awaits.

Syvret remarked that winning made the London experience great, and that fuels competitive teenagers plenty. But the dream of playing professionally in the NHL, American Hockey League or Europe and the path there paved by the likes of Perry, Wideman, Carlson and John Tavares often seal the deal.

“It’s pretty impressive, just the way they’ve been able to go out and find certain guys. They come in and play so well for them,” Gagner said. “I think part of it, though, is the fact that the way they run things there kind of turns you into a winner. It’s kind of like a Detroit Red Wings model: You get guys that come into London and they just buy into the program.”

Always a Knight

Leaving London for the pros, so many players find a way back. Perry, a Peterborough, Ontario, native, and others bought homes in the area and live there in the offseason, despite no previous connection to the city before playing there.

At no time is the lifelong Knights connection more evident than every September, when the Hunters open John Labatt Centre so several alumni and other local players such as Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty can train for the upcoming season.

“Parents and the children trying out for the team can watch us as products. The majority of us are products of the London Knights that have come through and we’ve gone on to play professionally,” said Syvret, who coordinates the alumni skates. “I think that’s the cool thing. If I was a young kid coming into an OHL organization and there’s reigning MVP Corey Perry and Drew Doughty … it’s sort of a cool first experience.”

It’s all part of that “Always a Knight” philosophy that is sewn into the fabric of London. As time goes on, the list of notable alumni grows and fosters a fraternity that’s unique in junior hockey.

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