- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2012

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.

“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.

“I guess it would be similar to college basketball or college football. They’re really close, and if a guy’s a Duke Blue Devil or a [North] Carolina Tar Heel, he’s that for life,” former assistant general manager Jim McKellar said. “A lot of that’s the same with the London Knights.”

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