Win­ning tra­di­tion pro­vides blue­print

Play­ing on Knights pre­pares alumni for suc­cess in the NHL

The Washington Times Daily - - Weather - BY STEPHEN WHYNO

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 firstround 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-the­p­ress-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.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Be­fore win­ning a Stan­ley Cup and Olympic gold, Ana­heim Ducks right wing Corey Perry led the London Knights of the On­tario Hockey League to the Me­mo­rial Cup. Perry now owns a home in the London area.

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