Knights before Hunters


Randy Russon
By
January 21, 2021

Given their sustained success as co-owners and as general manager and head coach, it sometimes seems as though the dynamic duo of Dale Hunter and Mark Hunter have always operated the London Knights.

But the Knights had an illustrious — if not as prolific — presence in the Ontario Hockey League long before the Hunter boys arrived in London back in 2000.

In short, there were Knights before there were Hunters.

Actually, to be sure, before the London Knights they were the London Nationals, who entered the league in 1965 — the OHL was officially known then as the ‘Ontario Hockey Association Major Junior A Series’.

Three years later, the legendary Howard Darwin bought the team and its home arena, the old London Gardens.

Mr. Darwin would then change the team name from Nationals to Knights and its colours from blue and white to green and gold.

And thus, in 1968, the London Knights were born.

Howard Darwin

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 was born into poverty, peddled newspapers as a young boy, and rose to make 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 various occurrences.

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.

As for Mr. Darwin, he ran the Knights like the good businessman that he was and the team also enjoyed a good amount of success under long-time coach — and another gentleman — Bill Long. The venerable Long coached the Knights for eight full seasons and had a winning record in six of them.

And towards the end of his tenure as owner of the Knights, Mr. Darwin made a business decision that worked out well when he hired Robert Irvine as promotions manager to boost advertising and ticket sales and make the franchise even more financially attractive.

Of note, the hustling Irvine was a former disc jockey at Sault Ste. Marie radio station CKCY, where he gained fame under the name Robert E. Lee.

KNIGHTS, HOUNDS ’87-88 SERIES

With the franchise sold by Mr. Darwin, 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 on more than one occasion — 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 opposing coaches did not attempt to hide their disdain or dislike for one another, even going as far as to chirp and ridicule one another in Sault This Week and London Free Press newspaper articles.

In the end, London won the series as Maxner made really good 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.

GOOD KNIGHT GUYS

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 KNIGHTS

London has had 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.

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 HUNTERS

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 OHL 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.


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