The Friday-night full house and the buzz around the bars here make it easy to forget what the Hunters, and the city, went through to be in this position. In 2000, Mark Hunter, himself a veteran of 12 NHL seasons and winner of Stanley Cup with Calgary in 1989, was an assistant coach for a minor league team in Kalamazoo, Mich. Dale Hunter had just completed his 19-year NHL career, and was working in scouting with the Capitals. They began, though, talking about owning a junior club as a way to stay in the game.
“We’d been around juniors,” Dale Hunter said. “That’s what we came up through.”
Back then, the London Knights played in the rickety London Ice House on the south side of town, far from the hub. That rink was for sale. And so was the team. The Hunters decided to make a run. They mortgaged their 2,000 acres of farmland and developed a business plan to present to banks — even though they didn’t know business. They needed $1.4 million for a down payment, Mark Hunter said, and $4 million, all told. He remembers telling his wife, “If this doesn’t work, this house goes.’”
Initially, the Hunters hired a coach so they could deal with player evaluation and procurement as well as the business side of things. For two straight summers, Mark went into the community, selling sponsorships — essentially selling a Hunter brand of hockey. Both men would mop the floors when the Ice House’s roof leaked, which was often. Both learned to drive the Zamboni so they could clear the ice for revenue-generating rentals after practices.
“You got to put your hours in there,” Dale Hunter said. “You got to be there every day. You run a business, you find out: When the boss is there, people seem to jump around a little bit quicker. . . . We invested a lot of money in it. We invested our time. So you had to do whatever you can to make sure it doesn’t fail.”
The Hunters’ first Knights team finished 36 points out of first place, an also-ran that was easily dispatched in the first round of the playoffs. To this day, on the wall of Mark Hunter’s office, hangs a picture of that group.
“It’s just a reminder: That’s where we came from,” Mark Hunter said. “It was no fun being in that position with that team. If I was too tired to go somewhere to do something, I’d just look at that picture.”
Perhaps the biggest piece of the equation, though, had nothing to do with hard work or scouting acumen. The new arena, a miniature version of Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, rose from a vacant lot, a public-private partnership that cost roughly $50 million and wasn’t, as former mayor Anne Marie Decicco-Best said, “designed to help bring the London Knights downtown.” City officials needed something, anything, to get people to socialize — and even live — in the center of the city. They considered a performing arts center. But one fact was inescapable: