The game is two hours away, and the seats at J. Dee’s Market Grill are already filling up, a man wearing a London Knights jacket seated one down from another wearing a London Knights cap. There is, already, discussion about playoff tickets — how much they’ll cost, who the potential opponents might be, whether it makes sense to hold off on the first round and wait till the second — because the grind of the postseason for the Ontario Hockey League is only a month away, and these boys, these Knights — well, they’re good again, eh?
Across King Street, in the glistening John Labatt Centre, hang the banners that signify that success — 14 of them representing division or conference championships, more for the retired jerseys of Rick Nash and Corey Perry and some of the best players in the NHL, not to mention the pinnacle, the 2005 Memorial Cup, the championship of Canadian major junior hockey, won right here. They are there because two brothers — two hockey-playing, hockey-living, hockey-breathing brothers — decided a dozen years ago to mortgage their farmland and buy the then-moribund Knights. The task: Revitalize a franchise for 15- to 20-year-old wannabe pros, and in turn revitalize an entire downtown.
“It was a little intimidating,” Dale Hunter said.
“We had to make it work,” Mark Hunter said.
It is, to this point, working, and then some — a season ticket base of 7,400, an arena that’s filled to its 9,046 capacity more nights than not, another year atop the standings in the OHL’s West Division. In a way, that success provides a backdrop for the hockey fortunes in two cities, one the capital of the United States, the other this town of some 365,000 in southwestern Ontario.
Dale Hunter coached the Knights for more than 10 seasons and won a higher percentage of his games than any coach in the 38-year history of the league. He now coaches the Washington Capitals, the team for which he played 790 of his 1,407 NHL games, a team that has opened the past three seasons with Stanley Cup aspirations but now, with five weeks to go, is not even ensured a playoff spot. However the NHL season turns out, no other current coach has the option Hunter does: a job in a city he loves for a team he owns that allows him, after practice, to drive 55 miles to his home town of Petrolia, hop onto a combine and harvest the wheat or the soybeans.
“He’s a hockey person,” said Mark Hunter, the Knights’ general manager who stepped behind the bench when Dale headed for Washington. “It’s hockey, farming, horses — that’s his passion. He’s not going to do anything else.”
And with the Labatt Centre filling up on a Friday night, with the first-place team ready to skate out from its locker room through an inflatable castle, it’s easy to understand why success with the Capitals may not be the be-all, end-all for Hunter. For a decade, he put everything — heart and soul and sweat and tears, sure, but money as well — into the Knights. Model franchise in the NHL? Probably the Detroit Red Wings. Model franchise in the OHL? Undoubtedly, the London Knights.
“This is a great gig for any coach,” said Trevor Whiffen, a Toronto lawyer who serves as the Knights’ governor, their representative to the OHL. “When you own the team and you live in the city and you have friends here and you grew up just down the road, you’re not making a concession or settling by coming here. . . . Everybody who’s motivated or ambitious wants to gravitate to the highest level they can be at. But Dale? Dale doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody.”
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:
“This is a hockey town,” said Misha Donskov, a London native who serves as the team’s assistant coach and assistant general manager. “And this town is very, very passionate about the London Knights.”
“They’re almost like one of those symbols within our community,” Decicco-Best said. “If you had to ask people what are the top three things you recognize about the community, the London Knights always make it in that purview.”
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.”
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.
Junior players throughout Canada typically lodge with local families — a practice known as billeting — and twins Ryan and Matt Rupert, forwards on this year’s team, still billet at Dale Hunter’s home. Bannon, the bar owner, said since he and his partner opened their spot in 1999, 10 or 12 restaurants, bars and clubs have opened within a few blocks.
“With the Hunters purchasing this team, not only was it good for the London Knights, it was good for this entire city,” Donskov said. “It was good for the downtown district. It was good for restaurant owners. It was good for business owners. It was good for the morale of the people, because they could rally around the hockey club.”
On that Friday night last month, with the seats at J. Dee’s filled up and the Windsor Spitfires in town, the people assembled again to rally around the hockey club. In the background of the luxury boxes, the broadcast of the game — carried, as each game is, by local cable television, drawing more than 111,000 viewers on average — flickered away on fans who paid $8.25 for a Labatt Tall Boy, $9.75 for a large draft. The highlights on the scoreboard that hangs over center ice could be an NHL production.
“It gives us a taste of what the next level might be like,” said Jarred Tinordi, this year’s captain and the son of former Capitals defenseman Mark Tinordi.
That particularly seemed true toward the tail end of a listless 4-1 loss. As the crowd filtered out, an old man yelled, “Nice effort, boys!” and walked into the night. This is a hockey town, and it expects its team to play a certain way.
Dale Hunter, too, expects his teams to play a certain way. He is doing it now at the highest level for a franchise with which he has real, deep roots. His roots here, though, are deep and real as well. The obvious question: Is there a way to say which he enjoys more?
“You see them go on and develop, there’s joy in that,” Hunter said one day after Capitals practice. “Here, the joy is winning. We’re here to win the Stanley Cup. That’s always the goal. That’s what it’s got to be.”
He used to coach boys and, he said, “father” them. He now coaches men. His contract lasts through the end of this season. Beyond that, there are no guarantees. Ask anyone in this town, though, if they could see Dale Hunter back behind the Knights’ bench, and the answer doesn’t vary.
“Oh, for sure,” Dylan Hunter said.
“He loves it,” said Donskov, the assistant general manager and coach.
That same night the Knights lost for just the third time in 14 games, the Capitals took an important victory at Florida. Both teams have their eyes on the playoffs. To an extent, Dale Hunter has his eyes on both teams, and the hockey fortunes and futures in two disparate cities are unexpectedly tied together.