Knights face bullish Belleville

JIM CRESSMAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:53 AM ET

Cody Thornton says the Belleville Bulls have opened a lot of eyes this season.

"We're at the stage we have to prove we're for real," the 18-year-old centre said yesterday.

Tonight would be one of those nights as the Eastern Conference-leading Bulls come into the John Labatt Centre to play the London Knights.

The Knights have gone 19 games -- 18 wins and one tie -- without a loss, an OHL record to start a season.

They're 10 shy of tying the Canadian Hockey League record set by the 1978-79 Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western league, who had 24 wins and five ties before their first loss.

"Whoever beats London obviously is going to draw more attention," said Thornton, in his third season with the Bulls and a nephew of NHLer Scott Thornton of London.

Scott, who has been with Toronto, Edmonton, Montreal, Dallas and now San Jose, was with the Bulls from 1987 to 1991.

Belleville finished last overall last season (15-44-8-1). The trip from worst to first is due in large part to a change in ownership, which brought about a change in management.

Former Knight George Burnett left Oshawa to join the Bulls as coach and general manager.

"It's helped for us to have this early success, especially the road wins," Burnett said. The Bulls have the league's second-best road record.

"It's improved the confidence level and it's helped build some winning habits.

"But it's also helped us realize that as soon as we get a little bit comfortable, we take a step back.

"It's tough not to recognize the outstanding start London has had, and we fully respect what they've accomplished to date."

Burnett said the new confidence level is quite noticeable in the veterans. "You hear, 'We've won almost as many games as we did last year,' and that's coming from the kids."

Burnett has even had to better prepare himself. He has coached in the OHL at Niagara Falls, Guelph and Oshawa, and all were small ice surfaces, under the North American standard (200 feet by 85 feet).

Belleville is 200 feet by 100 feet, the international standard.

"This big ice has been very different for me," he said.

The Bulls have a real local flavour.

In addition to their coach being an ex-Knight, Thornton and defenceman Geoff Killing, 17, are both from Embro, 19-year-old rookie winger Mark Johnson is from Glencoe and over-age defenceman Pat Sutton, 20, hails from Forest.

"It's always fun to return to London," Burnett said. "There are a lot of the same faces . . . clearly the arena is much different. I can only think how nice it would have been to play in a building like (the JLC) when I was there."

Thornton said it doesn't surprise him that a small place like Embro would produce two OHLers -- and on the same team. "It is a really rich hockey town -- it's hockey and farming."

Thornton leads the Bulls in scoring. Burnett calls him a true leader.

"He's keen and he has great work habits and he's enjoying the moderate success we've been enjoying so far. He's really good with the young guys.

"He has a positive attitude and if you don't have that on your hockey club, you can fragment pretty quick."

Burnett said Sutton is their best defenceman.

"He's rock-solid. He and Killing are playing against the other teams' best units."

Burnett said Killing has been a surprise on the blue-line. "It's a tall task for him -- it's a lot to ask of a player with 29 games of experience before this year -- but it's a good experience for him."

Johnson is a fourth-liner but plays with an edge to his game, Burnett added.

"It's his first year but because he is a little older, he's in there when things get a little heavy physically."

KNIGHTWATCH

Tonight: The Knights play Belleville at the John Labatt Centre starting at 7:30 p.m.

Tomorrow: The Knights are in Erie, Pa., for a 7:30 p.m. game.

Time change: Next Friday's game against Ottawa at the JLC will begin at 7 p.m. to accommodate a Rogers Sportsnet national telecast.


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