Jr. Knights changes paying off

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:26 AM ET

This may be the year the London minor hockey system sheds its image of not producing enough top-quality players.

It's an image that has magnified over the years as smaller cities develop players in greater numbers than London. As Ontario Hockey League teams each year meet to divide up the talent, London as a hometown isn't heard as often as it should be.

That is going to change in May when OHL teams restock their franchises.

When the London Junior Knights organization decided to do things differently four years ago, it expected the fruits of those labours to be evident with this year's minor midget team.

How prophetic that proved to be.

While no OHL scout or manager worth his salt will talk freely about who is expected to be drafted or who isn't, the assessment is much the same, no matter whom you talk to. The Junior Knights minor midget AAA team is expected to see at least eight players selected in the OHL draft. And we aren't talking about just token selections. It's expected those eight will go in the first six rounds, prime space for those who hope to make the OHL.

Defenceman Drew Doughty is expected to go in the first round. The team would have had another first-round selection if forward Logan Couture had remained with the team. Instead he opted to play junior B with the St. Thomas Stars.

By all accounts, Couture will go in the first three picks.

Jordan Skellet, Leigh Salters, Adam Zamec and Andrew Wilson all will likely go early as well.

"When you look at the Toronto Marlies organization, you'll see that they have a lot of names going to be drafted," says Joe O'Neill, president of the Junior Knights.

"But they get players from all over. Our players are from London and we're proud of that."

Four years ago the Junior Knights made a number of changes. The organization began a coach-mentoring program with Larry Riggin and Paul Nicholson, and focused on skills development rather than winning.

"The wonderful thing is, we have coaches' meetings that last two, 2 1/2 hours, and the subject of winning never comes up," says O'Neill.

"We talk about how to make our practices better, how to deal with parents, and we still win."

They are winning to the point that 13 of the 18 Junior Knights' teams have made league finals.

While developing players for junior teams should never be the ultimate goal, it's a great byproduct of a successful program. For those who have the talent to make hockey a career, there's nothing wrong with giving them every opportunity to fulfil that goal.

There are numerous reasons for the turnaround. On-ice, the most obvious is the emphasis placed on teaching skills rather than systems. Systems focus more on winning than player development.

"We don't need three breakout plays or two power plays," says O'Neill. "You need to know how to make a pass and secure it. Now, no matter who we play, we are confident we have a reasonable chance of winning."

Off-ice, the organization battled to remove politics from the selection process of its representative teams.

"Our AAA teams were awful because politics were rampant. If you made the AAA in novice, you were an AAA player forever. It didn't matter whether you weren't able to play at the AAA level. We took a lot of heat from parents when this changed but this was the right thing to do."

O'Neill used the AAA minor midget team as an example of how one no longer simply makes a team because he played on it before. "Do you know how many players are left from this team when they started in AAA novice? There's five players left."

You'll get a chance to see how much the product has improved this week when this Junior Knights team takes on another strong local club, the Elgin-Middlesex Chiefs, in a best-of-seven minor midget final. The Chiefs will also provide several players to the OHL draft.

O'Neill feels it will be an outstanding series. And if you're looking for more proof of how far London minor hockey has come, watch how local names pop up on the OHL draft board after the season.


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