How Dale, Mark Hunter turned London Knights into a CHL powerhouse

London-Knights-coach-and-co-owner-Dale-Hunter

Longtime London Knights coach and co-owner Dale Hunter. (Dave Chidley/CP)

All things considered, London Knights fans are pretty spoiled.

That’s something you might not have said around the turn of the century, but consider the track record: In recent years, they’ve gotten to know Rick Nash before he went No. 1 overall to the Columbus Blue Jackets, met Corey Perry before he became a cornerstone of the Anaheim Ducks, and were dazzled by Patrick Kane when few knew what he could do. They got a first-hand glimpse of John Tavares before he was let loose on the NHL circuit, celebrated Max Domi as he made a name for himself apart from his dad, and watched Mitch Marner grow up. And those are just a few of the many NHL stars to have skated through London, where Rogers Hometown Hockey makes a stop this weekend.

Consistent success is hard to come by in sports and it’s even tougher to achieve in a league centred around developing and launching players to the next level — after all, the most NHL-ready ones won’t likely stick around for long.

But the Knights have managed to get pretty close to just that thanks to the steady presence of co-owners Dale Hunter (head coach) and Mark Hunter (general manager) at the helm. The brothers from nearby Petrolia, Ont., took on a struggling OHL franchise almost 20 years ago and have since transformed it into one of the top junior hockey destinations and most sought-after stepping stones to the pros.

“I played, so I know what it takes on and off the ice,” Dale Hunter, who himself suited up for 1407 NHL games with the Quebec Nordiques, Washington Capitals and Colorado Avalanche, recently told Sportsnet’s Christine Simpson. “Young people coming into this, you’re 15, 16 years old and you’re playing minor midget and you’re coming here and it’s a totally different culture. I try to teach them to be NHLers, and that’s on and off the ice.”

The gold (and green) standard of OHL success

Junior success is based on wins and championships, yes — and the two-time Memorial Cup champs have plenty of Ws in the Hunter era — but also on how many players pass through its doors on their way to the NHL.

“We like skill, so we develop a lot of skill,” Hunter said. “Mark going out, and our scouts going out and everybody involved.

“It’s [Mark’s] job to go get the good players, and it makes it easier on the coaches, I’ll tell you that much,” Hunter continued. “He does a good job of getting skill here and then trying to get them playing to a level where they can step in and play easily in the National Hockey League.”

Case in point: Marner, who Hunter describes as a “water bug” thanks to his small stature and great shiftiness on the ice.

“He was pretty small here, but he was like a water bug — he’d never stop,” he said of the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ fourth-overall pick in 2015. “He has a great motor where sometimes his shifts are a little long, but he has a motor that can do it. He would skate forever, make plays and he’s a great passer. He sees the ice so well.”

Kane was the same way in London before being selected first overall by the Chicago Blackhawks — short on size but rich in skill.

“Patrick Kane, oh yeah, he was a special player,” Hunter recalled. “He came here and he wowed the fans. When he came here, he wasn’t ranked so high in the draft, but when he first stepped on the ice here, we go, ‘Woah. This guy is special.’

“Definitely, he set up plays, was back behind the plays, and he did it with a smile. He enjoyed the game. A lot of people said, ‘Well, he won’t be able to do that in the National Hockey League.’ And he’s doing the same thing.”

The club has been a pipeline to the pros for more than just players. Dale Hunter’s success behind the bench earned him a call-up to the Washington Capitals in November 2011 following the firing of Bruce Boudreau. Hunter coached the NHL club to a 30-23-7 record and pushed them into the playoffs before deciding his heart was back home.

Mark Hunter would also leave London for a short time, helping usher in the current Maple Leafs era as director of player personnel in 2014 and later as assistant GM. His name will forever be linked to Marner, who he drafted to the Knights before having the rare opportunity to also call his name at the NHL draft a few years later.

But like his brother before him, Mark returned home to resume his position as GM of the Knights. The move was announced earlier this off-season, after he left the Maple Leafs following Kyle Dubas’s appointment to the top job in Toronto.

Celebrate Our Community. Celebrate Our Game.

The house the Hunters built

Under the Hunters’ guidance, the Knights are two-time Memorial Cup champions (2005, 2016), four-time OHL Champions (2004–05, 2011–12, 2012–13, 2015–16) and have registered the top regular-season record six times.

But the city didn’t always have a lot to cheer about when it came to its local major-junior club. Faithful fans from the pre-Hunter days will tell tales of some pretty low lows — of the infamous “SpiderKnight” sweaters, an Ice House in disrepair, and a too-bad-to-even-be-believed 1995-96 season that saw them finish with a 3-60-3 record.

That all changed in 2000 when the Hunters returned to their hockey roots and purchased the team along with fellow former NHLer Basil McCrae.

The timing was perfect.

“Mark was coaching at the time in Sarnia [with the OHL’s Sting] and I was just finishing up my career in Colorado in the playoffs, and that’s when it all started coming about,” Hunter said. “We wanted to be involved in hockey… and we ended up buying [the Knights] and starting from there in 2000. It was quite an adventure.”

Then came time to roll up their sleeves and get to work on bringing sustained success to the city.

“We had to restock the cupboards, as you’d say – get draft picks and run the arena,” Hunter said of the first challenges of owning the team.

A new arena deal was already in the works, and the revamped roster was ready for its close-up when the new downtown rink (known at the time as the John Labatt Centre, and later renamed Budweiser Gardens) opened its doors in October 2002.

“The city was behind it. We thought it was the perfect location, right in the heart of the city,” Hunter said of the venue. “People come down for supper and then go the games, walk over to the games. It’s really convenient for the fans.”

Those fans have been a driving force from the early days of the Hunters’ tenure, making their presence known at the new arena upon its opening and around the league.

“It’s special to play in front of them,” Hunter said. “That’s why it’s easy to recruit players because we just show them a game, and show them the fans – how loud they are, how they care, how they follow us on the road.”

2005: The team that changed everything

So, as fans filled the 9,090-seat arena, the Hunters filled the roster with talented players thanks to a newly implemented scouting system. Ten years after that three-win season of 1995–96, the faithful were rewarded for their pains with the formidable 2005 edition of the Knights — a squad that featured players like Perry, Brandon Prust, David Bolland, Dan Girardi, Marc Methot, Robbie Schremp and Danny Syvret, among others.

Those Knights won 31 straight games to start the season, which ended with them setting an OHL record with 59 wins before going 16-2 in the playoffs and defeating Sidney Crosby’s Rimouski Oceanic on home ice to win the franchise’s first-ever Memorial Cup. Earlier this year, that historic squad was even named the CHL’s team of the century.

Talk about a turnaround.

“They’d never won it. It had been quite a few years and the stigma kind of goes, ‘Well, you’ve never won it all,’” Hunter said of the team’s climb to the top that year. “We had a good team and good playoff runs. The Memorial Cup here, it was tough because we had to go up against Sid the Kid, and he’s a special player – we knew he was.

“Mark went and watched Rimouski play and we go, ‘Oh, we gotta get better,’” he said. “That’s how good they (Rimouski) were, so it was a battle and we had a lot of character guys that stepped up and played unbelievably in the playoffs and in the Memorial Cup and won for us.”

A decade later, the club reached the top of the CHL again with their second Memorial Cup victory in 2016. Scan that year’s roster and you’ll see plenty of familiar names, including Marner, Matthew Tkachuk, Olli Juolevi, Victor Mete, Christian Dvorak, Tyler Parsons and Evan Bouchard, among others.

The team went 39-25-2-2 in 2017–18, and exited the playoffs in the first round. Now, a new season is under way with players like Liam Foudy (2018 first-round pick of the Blue Jackets) and 2019 NHL Draft hopeful Matvei Guskov (seven points in his first eight games) leading the charge.

And so the Hunters’ tradition of drafting and developing continues. So, too, they hope, the one of seeing their players off to the game’s biggest stage.

“They’re kids when they come here, and now they’re men,” said Hunter. “They enjoy the game, and it’s fun when a coach has players that enjoy the game and have fun at the game. It’s hard work, but it’s still fun.”

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