The Labatt Centre opened in 2002, and Dale Hunter remembers running to the glass windows that surround the building after an early event — a Cher concert, of all things — watching and wondering if the traffic would filter out efficiently. This, too, was just as the Knights were beginning to change their on-ice fortunes. By that point, the Hunters had fired their coach, tried Mark for a stint behind the bench, and eventually installed Dale. Mark, 18 months younger than his older brother, developed an intense interest in scouting and player evaluation just as Dale, with all those NHL games and goals and penalty minutes behind him, developed as a coach. Together, the pair developed as a team.
“Being brothers, I think, is a big advantage,” Whiffen said. “They’ve known each other their whole lives. They know what each other’s thinking.”
‘Good for this entire city’
The pinnacle came in 2004-05, in the midst of the NHL’s lockout. With Canada starved for hockey, the Knights opened the season by going 29-0-2 — the longest unbeaten streak in the history of the Canadian Hockey League, the umbrella organization that encompasses all of major junior hockey in the country. “We were on SportsCenter every weekend,” said Dylan Hunter, Dale’s son, a forward on that team.
“I still think about it, how everything that whole season was pretty remarkable,” said Corey Perry, the star of that team and the 2010-11 winner of the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP with the Anaheim Ducks. “You’re 16, 20 years old, and all these people are so excited about everything you’re doing.”
The Knights hosted and won the Memorial Cup that spring, and the pictures of that team still adorn the walls of Joe Kool’s, a sports bar just down Richmond Street from the rink. The night they clinched the Cup by beating the Rimouski Oceanic — led by star Sidney Crosby — Danny Syvret, the team captain, walked across King Street to J. Dee’s in full uniform, cigar and beer in hand, celebrating with the owners, the patrons, the town.
“There’s a connection there,” said Mike Bannon, co-owner of the bar since it opened in 1999. When the Knights staged a parade later that week, the streets of downtown London grew so packed, the trucks could hardly move.
“We were just like, ‘What the heck?’ and started signing autographs,” Perry said.
That experience further solidified London’s love affair with the Knights, and vice versa. Dylan Hunter, 26, now in his first year as an assistant coach with the Knights, said 10 or 11 of his teammates, including Perry, bought homes in the area and return to golf and hang out in the summer.