Perfect Knights

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:15 AM ET

It's a Barrie Saturday night and the largest crowd in Colts' history is buzzing with anticipation.

Could this be it?

Could the merely-mortal home side do what no other Ontario Hockey League team has been able to this season?

The first period is winding down and the mighty London Knights, so talented, so disciplined, so driven, so darn-near perfect, are on the edge of a meltdown, trailing by two goals for only the third time in 25 games.

For two full months, the Knights have been unbeatable -- 23 wins, one tie -- but now in Game 25, they have let referee Al Smith, an exchange official from the Western Hockey League, get under their collective skin.

They have responded to several borderline penalties called against them with uncharacteristic petulance and now, in the dying seconds of the opening period, not only are they trailing 2-0, but they face a full two minute, two-man disadvantage that will extend 101 seconds into the next period.

If it's indeed true that to understand the future, we must examine the past, then the London Knights are the exception to the rule. They've been around 40 years and while they have had some outstanding players and teams along the way, they have never won an OHL title. Never been to a Memorial Cup.

That last oversight will be taken care of this season, guaranteed. As hosts for the 2005 Memorial Cup, London gets an automatic berth. The way they're going now, they won't need that free pass.

Dale and Mark Hunter, once big-time players in the NHL and now big-time farmers near Petrolia, 80 kilometres west of London, have seen to that.

They bought the Knights and the Ice House, the suburban hockey rink they used to call home, in May of 2000 for $3.8 million. They immediately set about putting together a team that would compete at the highest levels when the new 9,000-seat, city-owned John Labatt Centre was ready in 2002.

"We discussed golf courses and other businesses to get into after retiring (from the NHL), but in the end, there's two things we know," said Dale at the time of the purchase.

"We know farming and we know hockey."

Apparently so. Their investment, which may have seemed a bit dodgy at the time, is paying dividends and in the process they're giving London hockey fans some thrills they've seldom experienced before.

Last winter, they won 53 of 68 OHL regular season games and set an OHL points record with 110 before losing in the seventh game of the conference final. Undaunted, they came back with even more fire this season.

Much as the Hunters sow the seeds then wait for the crops on their farms, so have they patiently put the pieces in place for a winning hockey team, drafting and developing talent. Dale has been the coach since 2001.

Fifteen players are in their third or fourth OHL season, many of them having spent their entire careers with the Knights. That number includes core players such as Dale Hunter's son Dylan, league-leading point scorer Corey Perry, captain Danny Syvret and overagers Brandon Prust and Rick Steadman.

Back in Barrie, the second period begins and it's clear the Knights have taken a look in the mirror and are back playing their game, a game that is based on speed, puck control and offensive creativity.

They kill the double-minor masterfully, then start to own the game. On a power play in the ninth minute of the second period, Prust, a gritty winger cut from the same cloth as the Hunters, reduces the lead to one.

In the third period, the Knights are on a mission. Defenceman Bryan Rodney ties the game at 11:25 and then centre Drew Larman delivers the game-winner two minutes later. Perry scores for insurance at 14:39 and the streak remains intact. At game's end, there is hardly a skate mark on the ice in the London end, the third period having been played entirely in Barrie's zone.

The next night, playing their third game in three days, the Knights make short work of the Wolves in Sudbury, scoring twice in the first and adding one in the second to cruise to a 3-0 victory. The win establishes a new unbeaten record of 26 games, surpassing the 1983-84 Kitchener Rangers.

Now all that's left on their record-setting to-do list is to catch the 1978-79 Brandon Wheat Kings who hold the Canadian record at 29 games. On Friday night, London plays its 27th game against Windsor at home. They're in Erie for Game 28 on Saturday.

Next Wednesday they'll be in Kitchener against the Rangers for Game 29. If the streak remains alive after that one, they'll face their old nemesis, the Guelph Storm, at home on Friday, Dec. 10 in an attempt to set the record. And that's only fitting because it was Guelph who handed London its most recent defeat, April 26, 2004 in the seventh and deciding game of the OHL Western Conference final.

"It's exciting," says Rob Schremp, from upstate New York. He was traded to London from Mississauga last season and is leading the league in goals with 24.

"Once it's all over we'll be able to look back on it and realize what we've done. But right now we're just rolling with it and having fun with winning."

With each passing game, the Knights become bigger targets for their opposition. Everybody wants to take them out and the games take on a playoff atmosphere even though it's only November.

"That's all right," Syvret says. "I think it'll help us for the playoffs and the Memorial Cup. This was similar to a playoff-style game. Real emotional and fun to be in. If that's the way teams are going to play us, then I say bring it on. By all means. This is a lot of fun."

Perry is an extraordinary talent, if a little temperamental. In the Barrie game, the Anaheim draft pick lost his composure a couple of times, took five minor penalties, two of them for yapping at the referee, and only strong penalty-killing bailed him out.

"We've got to keep our heads, myself included," he says. "I took a couple of dumb penalties and it cost us. We can't have things like that happen. We have to not let that kind of stuff happen.

"These away games are getting tougher and tougher. Teams are tightening up on defence on us. It's been a tough go the last couple of weeks but we seem to keep coming through."

Until this autumn, the London franchise might best be remembered for one season from hell, nine years ago, when they set a Canadian record for ineptitude.

Just as no one could have predicted this golden season, no one foresaw the trainwreck that was the 1995-96 Knights, who did not win until their 34th game.

By the time the horror show was over, the team had gone through three head coaches and they had set 10 OHL and three CHL standards for futility that still exist on their way to a 3-60-3 record.

The London Gardens, located in a suburban shopping centre next to a major supermarket, had been renamed the Ice House that year by the Knights' owners, the Tarry family, of St. Thomas.

Longtime OHL coach Bert Templeton was coaching the expansion Barrie Colts that year and uttered an immortal line, rubbing the Knights' noses in their own futility.

"London?' the late Templeton once said. "Oh yes. That's where you can get your groceries and two points at the same time."

No more. These days in London all you get is hungry.


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