LON­DON

The Washington Times Daily - - Sports -

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 sin­gle­hand­edly 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’

The chance to build an em­pire, and do it to­gether, was just what Dale and Mark Hunter wanted. They’re “24/7” hockey peo­ple, in the eyes of ra­dio color an­a­lyst Jim Van Horne and count­less oth­ers around the city.

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 well­re­spected, 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 ul­tra­com­pet­i­tive 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 Mckin­ley, 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.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Judg­ing by the ini­tial re­ac­tion of Bron­cos fans, a quar­ter­back tan­dem of Pey­ton Man­ning (left) and Tim Tebow (right) would be ideal. Man­ning is a four-time MVP, and Tebow last sea­son led Den­ver to its first play­off win since 2005.

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