Sustained success of 18 successive winning seasons under the current ownership and operation of brothers Dale Hunter and Mark Hunter is the latest chapter of a good London Knights history.
Over those past 18 seasons, the Knights have represented the Ontario Hockey League at the Memorial Cup tournament five times, winning twice.
Even more remarkable, perhaps, is that London has won 50 regular season games five different times between the 2002-2003 and 2019-2020 campaigns — and won 49 games on five other occasions during that span.
The Knights OHL history dates back to 1968 when Howard Darwin bought the then three year old London Nationals franchise and changed the name to the moniker that it still carries some five decades later.
I had the pleasure of meeting and mingling with the late Mr. Darwin and to this day, he remains one of the classiest and finest gentlemen I have met in my media career that began in 1975.
A self made man who made a fortune as a jeweler and real estate investor, Mr. Darwin — who owned the Knights for close to 20 years — was a sports fanatic and promoter who had a kind, friendly word on each and every occasion that we talked over the years.
And in a touch of irony, he sold the London franchise to a group that was fronted by another true gentleman who I got to know, the late Al Martin.
KNIGHTS, HOUNDS ’87-88 SERIES
The Knights debut season under the new Al Martin et al ownership group — the 1987-1998 campaign — would feature a memorable, opening round Emms Division playoff series against the Soo Greyhounds.
I covered every game of that series — actually traveling back and forth from the Soo to London on the Knights team bus — and to say it was a hotly contested, six-game set would be putting it mildly.
The Greyhounds were coached by Don Boyd — who had been London’s hockey boss for three full seasons before bolting for the Soo — while journeyman OHL coach Wayne Maxner was at the helm of the Knights.
Maxner — after prior OHL gigs with the Windsor Spitfires and Sudbury Wolves — had succeeded Boyd as the coach in London. And the two formidable foes did not attempt to hide their disdain or dislike for one another, even going as far as to chirp one another in Sault This Week and London Free Press newspaper articles.
In the end, London won the series as Maxner made expert use of his four lines and six defenseman while a desperate Boyd over-used his top players and was clearly out-coached and out-smarted.
To this day, the series remains one of the most thrilling OHL playoff sets that I have ever covered.
Three of the games were decided in overtime with London winning all three by identical 5-4 scores.
Overage right winger Ron Goodall — who had been acquired by London from the Kitchener Ranger at the OHL trade deadline — was the star of the series for the Knights with nine goals in six games.
Other London standouts were rookie goalie David Schill, point producing defensemen Brad Schlegel and Rick Corriveau and forwards Tim Taylor, Don Martin and Dennis McEwen. Meanwhile, the Knights all-rookie ‘Maritime Line’ of East Coasters Doug Synishin, Danny Leblanc and Steve Martell was very effective in a shutdown role.
Hounds overage center Mike Oliverio was a series star for the Soo with seven goals, five assists, 12 points in the six games while fellow forwards Dan Currie, Tyler Larter and Mike Glover all put up their share of scoreboard statistics.
At the end of the hard fought series, London was the better team, by the slightest of overtime margins.
KNIGHTS TO REMEMBER
Many of the good guys who I have met over years of covering the OHL just happen to be former head and assistant coaches of the London Knights.
It is a list that includes Bill Long, Paul McIntosh, Wayne Maxner, Gary Agnew, Mike Kelly, Murray Nystrom, Tom Hedican, Bobby Mantha and Mike Fedorko.
In particular, I have had multiple good moments and laughs over the years with Maxner, Agnew, Hedican and Nystrom that included one or two or three or four or more beers.
Agnew coached the Knights on two different occasions under two separate ownership groups and managed to have coach of the year success while also doubling as general manager before going on to be an assistant coach of many years in the National Hockey League.
As for fellow good guy Nystrom — originally hailing from the gritty northwestern Ontario town of Thunder Bay — he has the distinction of having played for, and coached, the Knights.
Then there was iconic team trainer Don Brankley, who served the Knights so well from 1970 until his retirement in 2008.
‘Branks’ passed away a few years back, just short of his 70th birthday.
There are very few — and that includes owners, general managers, coaches, scouts, trainers and players — who have represented the Knights in their noteworthy history as well as Branks did.
If you got to know Branks — as so many of us did over the years — you would no doubt consider yourself very well done by.
SOO CREW ON THE KNIGHT SHIFT
London has secured a clear connection to Sault Ste. Marie over the years.
Soo boys who ventured to London and became part of the Knight life between 1991 and 2013 included forwards Cory Evans, Rico Fata and Michael Mazzuca, defensemen Joel Sandie, Jeff Whitfield and Trevor Solomon and goalies Gene Chiarello and Jake Patterson.
Of note, Fata, Mazzuca and Chiarello were high-performing teammates of varying skills in London from 1996 until 1999 and have all since gone on to successful careers away from hockey.
And Patterson, as a goalie, was part of London teams that went to the Memorial Cup tournament in back to back seasons, the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 campaigns.
Meanwhile, the late Don Kurylo was a tried, trusted and true Sault Ste. Marie-based scout for the Knights through a good part of the 1990s.
Kurylo loved working for the team to the extent that he would drive to the top of a hill in the Peoples Road area of the Soo where he would able to listen to Knights games at a distance via their London radio station affiliate.
(Loyal, likeable and trustworthy, Kurylo also had a long association with the Soo Legion and Soo North Stars major midget hockey programs.)
SOO NEW TO THE KNIGHTS
And adding to its Soo talent history at the recent 2020 OHL priority selections draft, London came away with a plum prospect in the fifth round, 99th overall, when the Knights nabbed slick, 2004 birth-year defenseman Mason Chitaroni from the Soo Jr. Greyhounds of the Great North Midget Hockey League.
The 5-foot-10, 150-pound Chitaroni, who won’t turn 16 until October of this year, picked up six goals, 13 assists, 19 points in 38 regular season games for the Jr. Greyhounds in 2019-2020.
Considered to be a steal as a late fifth-round pick by those who know him better than others, Chitaroni — who has been described by his Jr. Greyhounds coach Jamie Henderson as a “world class skater” — hopes to defy the odds and make the Knights as a 16-year old rookie in 2020-2021.
But if he doesn’t, the Knights could opt to keep him close to London and have him play for any of their nearby farm teams in the Greater Ontario Jr. Hockey League, be it the London Nationals, St. Thomas Stars, St. Mary’s Lincolns or Komoka Kings.
THESE DAYS, THESE KNIGHTS
Simply stated, the Knights have become the OHL’s model franchise under president-head coach Dale Hunter and his general manager brother, Mark Hunter.
In spite of his rather shy nature, Dale Hunter is the clear-cut face of the London franchise.
To be sure, his success as an OHL bench boss is without parallel in terms of the fact that he reached the 800 mark in career wins faster than any other coach in league history.
Soon to be 60-years old, Hunter and the Knights are showing no signs of slowing down as per their record over the past five seasons — 45-15-2, 46-15-7, 39-25-4, 46-15-7, 51-14-3.
There are those five Memorial Cup appearances and 18 straight winning seasons and it is little wonder that the Knights are the example for other OHL teams to try to emulate.
While opposing fans are envious and jealous of the Knights and all that they have accomplished in the Hunter era, the winning records are facts, plain and simple.
As are the number of players that the Knights have sent to the NHL that have been coached by Hunter — and the many others who have been properly developed and taught to play the game the right way.
And it was Dale as the coach and Mark as the GM who led Team Canada to a stunning and satisfying gold medal title at the 2020 World Junior Hockey Championships.
Just for good measure, two London forwards, Liam Foudy and Connor McMichael, were part of Canada’s 2020 gold-medal team. And of course, in true Knights fashion, both Foudy (Columbus Blue Jackets) and McMichael (Washington Capitals) are both recent first round NHL draft picks.
Which is all part of the Knight vision that is plain and clear.