London Knights work hard for success
Hunter brothers set high standard for Ontario Hockey League club
To play for the London Knights, the rules are simple: you must have good hockey sense, be accountable, work hard and willing to talk hockey 24/7.
It's the only way former NHL forwards and brothers Dale and Mark Hunter have done business since they purchased the Ontario Hockey League club from the Tarry family in 2000.
With a smart business and hockey plan along with a state-of-the-art arena, they brought the Knights back to respectability in a short period and guided London its first Canadian junior championship in 2005, defeating Rimouski in the Memorial Cup final.
A number of highly skilled players have passed through the London program in recent years and quickly made an impact at the NHL level, including Rick Nash (Columbus), Corey Perry (Anaheim), Patrick Kane (Chicago), Steve Mason (Columbus), Dennis Wideman (Boston) and David Bolland (Chicago), to name a few.
In all, 28 one-time Knights have played in the NHL, with 17 currently on a big-league roster.
"It seems like every other game we're playing a former Knight," Nash, a star left-winger with the Blue Jackets, told CBCSports.ca by phone from Columbus. "We have [goalie Steve] Mason and [defenceman Marc] Methot in our organization and had [forward Dan] Fritsche (now with Minnesota).
"I don't know what it is they [Hunters] do but the only thing that comes to mind is they treat you like a pro and they practise like NHL teams.
"When [current Knights players] go to [NHL] training camp or rookie camp, they're used to the practices and how intense the drills are. They just come out of that system a lot more ready [for the NHL]."
When the Hunters took over — Dale as head coach and Mark as vice-president and general manager — the Knights were coming off a 22-36-10 season and missed playoffs in 1999-2000.
The time seemed right for change. With a season-ticket base of 1,271 at the London Ice House, which held 5,075 fans including standing room, the Hunters believed good players needed to be brought in, along with good coaching and a different mindset when it came to the draft.
Dale Hunter, with a successful 19-year playing career in the NHL from which to draw, made a seamless transition to the bench. Through Feb. 11, his regular-season coaching record stood at 367-173, 26 ties and 32 overtime/shootout losses for a winning percentage of .662.
Special teams huge to Hunters
The 48-year-old's experience in the game and ability to stay calm, save for the odd questionable call by the referees, has served him well.
So has Dale Hunter's commitment to special teams.
"He probably works on the power play more than any coach I've ever seen and he's creative about it," said Dave Gagner, who played centre for 13 seasons in the NHL and now watches his son Sam, who starred for London in 2006-07, toil for the Edmonton Oilers.
"With the skill level that Mark [Hunter] has been able to provide for Dale, it's fun for Dale to be able to do some complicated things on the power play that might be deemed as high-risk by other coaches, but it's really worked out well."
The biggest surprise for the elder Gagner when he worked alongside Hunter as an assistant coach from 2006 to 2008 was how the latter exposed his skilled players.
"He really cares about the individual and makes sure that they're getting what they want," said Gagner, adding the Knights would often put a forward at the point with the man-advantage to maximize the team's skill level. "He loves it when guys set records and pushes guys to do it."
Bolland, now in his second season as a centre with the Blackhawks, remembers being treated like a professional from the moment he arrived in London from the Toronto Red Wings of the Greater Toronto Hockey League in 2002.
"If Dale had something to say he'd come up and say it to you," said Bolland, 22, who had 32 points in 51 games this season through Feb. 11. "He was like a second father to me, so having him behind that bench was really good for me."
It's a far cry from the 1995-96 season when London employed three head coaches — Mike Fedorko, Murray Nystrom and Tom Barrett — en route to a 3-60-3 finish, which remains the worst record in Canadian Hockey League history.
"It was brutal. Everyone was discouraged," said Travis Riggin, who was traded from Kitchener to London during that infamous season, joining a Knights outfit that was 0-24. "It didn't seem [management] tried to make it any better than it was. I think they drafted very poorly back then, too, because their rookies weren't anything to write home about."
Bolland, meanwhile, recalled some great trades by Mark Hunter, who picked up Wideman early in the 2000-01 season and top centre Charlie Stephens from Guelph for the 2002 stretch drive.
In January, Hunter acquired defenceman Michael Del Zotto, goaltender Daryl Borden and forward John Tavares — ranked the top North American skater for this summer's NHL entry draft — from Oshawa for forward Christian Thomas, defenceman Scott Valentine and goaltender Michael Zador. Oshawa also received six draft picks.
Hunters 'smart, always working'
"They're smart people," said Bolland of the Hunters. "They knew what they needed to do to win. Whenever I saw them they were always working. Whenever I saw Mark, he was always scouting and looking around [for talent]."
A former Montreal Canadien, Mark Hunter collected 384 points in 628 NHL games over 12 seasons and was instrumental in rebuilding the Knights' scouting network. He brought in head scout John McDonald, now in his mid-70s, from Sarnia (where Hunter coached in the 1990s) and replaced four scouts from the previous regime in London.
"Some [of the old scouts] were looking just for big guys. Bigger isn't always better if big can't play," said Hunter, who prefers skill and speed first, with grit an added bonus. "When you start drafting later [in the first round] you better be a little more creative."
Nash was the Hunters' first draft pick (fourth overall) in 2000, while Mason was drafted in the 11th round in 2004 and three years later was named the OHL goalie of the year. In January 2008, he led Canada to a gold medal at the world junior hockey championship and is this year's front-runner for top rookie honours in the NHL.
"One of my scouts pushed for him," said Mark Hunter of Mason. "It was a great pick but you have to develop [the player] still. [Knights goalie coach] Dave Rook did a great job and mentored Mason through a lot of ups and downs, especially early in his [junior] career."
While drafting is important, it always comes back to coaching for Mark Hunter and creating the right environment for teenaged players.
He describes Dale as a calm, patient bench boss who has the respect and accountability from his players.
"We've been pretty lucky with most players we've got that have come in here and bought into the program and Dale having patience with them. I really believe in coaching, No. 1," said Mark, 46, who coached and mentored current NHLers Trevor Letowski, Mike Van Ryn, Eric Boulton and Jon Sim while in Sarnia.
"The kids that played [on London's Memorial Cup team] instilled in the next kids what [winning is] all about. Of course, you still have to have the Pat Kanes and Sam Gagners that came in afterwards. You still need talent but we felt that winning tradition from other kids helps them know what it takes to win when they get that age when they can be that go-to-guy."
One payoff of the Knights' success is playing to a full arena, which they have done since the 9,100-seat John Labatt Centre opened on Oct. 11, 2002. Fittingly, Dylan Hunter — Dale's son — scored the first goal in the building.
"It's an exciting place to play every game," Dave Gagner said. "It really makes it a lot easier for guys to get their skill level up and intensity because you feel there are a lot of people watching you, you have to be at your best every night."
With a seventh consecutive winning season almost in the books, it's safe to say the Hunters and their players have met the challenge.