The Longest Season: The London Knights

When, on the eve of the 2012–13 season, Sportsnet magazine asked CHL coaches to pick their Memorial Cup favourite, 34 percent tabbed the London Knights as the best candidate (44 percent in the OHL). And considering they very nearly did it last season, losing in overtime to the Shawinigan Cataractes, it wasn’t a huge surprise. The Knights, who were purchased in 2000 by Mark and Dale Hunter, have become standard-bearers for CHL excellence, consistently thrilling a large, devoted fan base with deep playoff runs. But a relatively short time ago, things were nowhere near so rosy.

The 1995–96 Knights did a lot of things that occupy dubious portions of major junior record books, but perhaps the most incredible facts about that forlorn team fall outside the realm of hard statistics. That season, the Knights had three different coaches before they had a single victory. In a January game versus the Niagara Falls Thunder, London built its biggest lead of the year—a 3–0 advantage—before being betrayed by the rickety London Ice House when a relief valve in the overhead heating system malfunctioned and caused hot water to gush out and bore large holes in the ice. The game was cancelled. When it was replayed, the Thunder won 7–4. And just weeks after that awful season ended, things turned genuinely tragic with the death of coach-GM Tom Barrett, who was preparing to draft the players who would alter the team’s future. Nobody in the organization knew he had been diagnosed with lung cancer two months earlier.

The Knights saw it all that season, en route to a 3-60-3 record—a mark that earned them the unfortunate distinction of being junior hockey’s worst team ever. Here’s how they remember that season from hell.

Don Brankley, Trainer: The kids who would come into the Ice House would talk to their buddies [on the Knights] before the game and they’d say, “Holy s–t, our coach told us if we lose to you guys tonight we’re practising at seven o’clock for the next week.” That was the kind of team you were supposed to call up a couple guys for, maybe play your backup, but everyone was terrified of losing to us because they didn’t want to be the first. That had an awful lot to do with that record.

Travis Riggin, Forward: Teams were coming out flying because they wanted to get up a few goals, because once they did, we’d either pack it in because we were so used to losing or we had enough guys on the team who would just start fighting.

Jason Brooks, Froward: We lost a lot of games, but I don’t think we lost too many fights.

Ryan McKie, Defenseman: Going to Windsor, in the old arena, there’d probably be five fights by the 10-minute mark.

Jamie Wentzell, Defenseman: London fans certainly loved the chippy stuff, they loved the fights. So after a while, when we weren’t getting any wins, we felt—I did, anyway—that we owed it to the fans to say, “If we can’t do anything, let’s put on a show.”

The Knights’ combative spirit could do little to mask the fact that the team simply had an extreme dearth of talent. London had recently graduated star Jason Allison, whose prodigious production had covered some existing warts, and an extremely young team got even greener when, thanks to mounting losses, management shipped out some veteran players with an eye to the future and some overagers decided to abandon ship and play minor pro. Compounding the issue further was the fact that ownership—like the players themselves—was in over its head. Doug Tarry took over the club after his father, Doug Sr., passed away while in the process of buying the team and rink. Doug Jr. lacked intimate knowledge of the game and was working as a chef when he was thrown into the fire. When the team cratered, he took heavy criticism.

Doug Tarry, Owner: My siblings said, “Go figure this hockey thing out.” I was called all kinds of names. That’s a good education—it means I don’t ever want to be a politician.

Me taking it on the chin because we had a bad team, well, you’re the owner buddy; the buck stops right there. But feeling bad for the kids, that was the heartbreak.

Jim Kernaghan: You couldn’t help but feel for them. Where I felt sorry was, in some cases, they were just doing the best they could. They were playing the best possible hockey they could, and it was still far from good enough.

Adam Colagiacomo: I don’t care what anyone says, you can string together more than three wins in a season. It just seemed like everything went wrong.

Riggin: It’s not like we weren’t working our bags off to get a win. There were a lot of close games that year that could have gone either way, and after a while it was a confidence issue.

Kernaghan: Even a bad NHL team, the guys learn over the years what they have to do to win, so they win the odd one. But at the junior level, when you have zero confidence, one defeat leads to the next defeat. You see them on the bench with their heads hanging and you think, “Are they ever going to win another one?” They’re kids, they’re not built to suck it up. They’ve got to learn all that. But that poor team, nobody ever learned.

Wentzell: We had two guys—Burgoyne and Colagiacomo—with like 25, 28 goals, then we had a whole bunch of utility players. It was frustrating as hell. When you lose so many games, even if you had a lead early, you didn’t know how to handle it. You’d get nervous, you’d give the puck away, a soft goal would go in. We didn’t know how to win. You’d go, you’d lose the game, you’d fight, you’d do whatever you had to do, then you had to go sit on a bus for eight hours. You just become numb, because if you got really, really upset after every loss, you’d go crazy.

Predictably, the stress of constantly losing put a huge strain on the Knights. Division in the ranks was inevitable, but the team did have some veteran leadership to lean on and—perhaps most significantly—the ever-present support of Brankley, the trainer who’d been a sounding board for players since joining the team in 1970.

Wentzell: [The losing] caused problems internally because some guys were ultra-serious and some guys were like, “Well, we lost another one. Let’s move on.” So you’ve got those two types of individuals on the same bus. It did cause some strife, but we worked our way through it. If there’s one thing you need in the dressing room when you lose that many games, it’s character guys.

Ryan Burgoyne: “Branks” is almost like a parent. No matter what’s going wrong or what you’ve done, you know he’s got your back—that’s invaluable for somebody that age going through that.

Wentzell: It hurt him probably more than us, because he poured his heart and soul into everything. He wanted to make sure we had the cleanest jerseys, the best gear, and we were the laughingstock of the league.

Brankley: I always tell the guys, I don’t coach because we have coaches, I coach guys on living and life, not on hockey. I remember being protective of that team—still am. I used to get in a lot of yelling matches with fans because they’d say awful things to the kids. I’d be saying awful things to the fans so they’d yell at me and leave the kids alone.

Brooks: Branks was a friend then and still is today because of those things he did for us.

Not that it was all doom and gloom. London is among the more happening cities on the OHL circuit and, even when the season seems like a never-ending nightmare, playing major junior hockey is still a dream for teenage athletes.

Riggin: If you’re going be in last place in the OHL, that’s the best city to be in because there’s something to do every night. We had no lack of fun. We were out partying with all the Western students. We made the best of that year. Curfew calls weren’t made on a regular basis.

Wentzell: To all my boys in Halifax, I’m in the show. You’re proud to be there, proud to be in the OHL. Yes, we had a s—-y team, but we were there.

Riggin: The best prank in all my years of hockey happened that year. [Goalie] Eoin McInerney had just gotten a new Jeep, and he loved that thing so much, he coddled the thing. One day a bunch of us stole his keys while he was getting changed and drove it around to the Zamboni door and parked it at centre ice. We put his keys back in his jeans and watched him walk out to the parking lot, and he was scrambling all over, calling his parents, explaining that his Jeep was stolen, almost in tears. We brought him back inside and we’re like, “Go see what’s on the ice.” So he goes out there and sees his Jeep and it was just priceless.

Exactly halfway through their 66-game schedule, the Knights still didn’t have a win. They had gone 0-31-2, establishing an OHL record for the longest winless stretch. One last game remained before the holiday break, as the North Bay Centennials came to town with the second-worst record in the league and a handful of suspended regulars following a brawl with Barrie. The Centennials led 3–2 after two periods, but London rookie Chad Cavanagh played the role of Santa Claus by burying a third-period hat trick, including an empty-netter with 13.6 seconds left to ice a 5–3 win.

Tarry: “Oh dear God, thank you.” One of the better Christmas presents I ever got.

Riggin: We partied for two days.

Brankley: It made our Christmas, because we were undefeated for like a week. Then, unfortunately, we had to play again.

London lost its next three games by a combined score of 21–4 before sneaking out another win on New Year’s Day, this time over Kitchener. Two months passed before the Knights got their last victory of the season by topping Windsor. Their final game was a 2–2 draw with the Spitfires, meaning they fell one point shy of the 10 posted by the 1977–78 Shawinigan Dynamos, the previous standard for CHL ineptitude. In all, the Knights established 10 OHL futility marks and set or matched an additional six CHL records.

But as the losses mounted, so did the lessons. Three years later, the organization came within a win of its first OHL title, a harbinger of the success ahead. Many of the players from the three-win squad went on to experience success at other levels, and though none of them cracked the NHL ranks, most would say something still resonates from that defeat-riddled year.

Wentzell: I always loved the fans. I remember playing the last game at home and the fans… I don’t think they gave us a standing ovation, but they certainly clapped. They lived it with us, and you can imagine a fan who was at the final game that season after losing 60 games—those are true fans.

Burgoyne: Murray Nystrom [who served as both coach and assistant coach at different times] really cared about those players. He actually came up to me at some point and said, “Listen, we don’t want to trade you, but we have an offer and we can trade you if you want to go.” I thought that was a very classy thing to do. If you ask me why I stayed, I don’t know if it was a sense of loyalty, I don’t know what it was, but if they still wanted me there, I didn’t want to leave the team.

McKie: It’s not something you’re super proud of, to be part of that record, but it shapes you. I learned a lot that year about myself and hockey.

Riggin: I know what it’s like to lose and I don’t like that feeling, so I try to go out and win every day.

Burgoyne: The guys on my men’s league team do not let me forget, let me assure you.

This article originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine.

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