Hunters go distance for Knights

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:18 AM ET

There were a lot of spectacular numbers in the London Knights' franchise season just completed but there's one important one that won't find its way into the record books with all the rest.

The number is 80,000. That's how many kilometres owner/general manager Mark Hunter has racked up on his vehicle inside the past year, the vast majority of them while scouting potential Knights.

His range is anywhere within reasonable driving distance of London. Snowstorms, such as one he encountered recently coming back from Niagara Falls, often mean a short night of sleep.

But it's part of the deal.

"Dale (brother and coach Dale Hunter) and I know that usually good things happen to any business when you take a 24/7 approach and when it's always on your mind to get better," Mark Hunter said matter-of-factly. "We don't count hours. You work until the job is done. Our job is to win the Memorial Cup."

Now come the what-ifs. What if the best junior team in the nation doesn't win? It's happened before to best teams.

"Revamp and try again," he answered without hesitation.

The normal valley top teams experience with the graduation of star players won't hit the Knights as hard, he feels.

"We think we can reload fast. We have confidence in our ability to find hockey players and free agents. We have a good recruiting tool here (the sold-out John Labatt Centre) and everything in place for us to be successful. You could have the arena and not the team or the team and not the arena and we have both."

A recent rumour that made the rounds put a brief dent in recruiting. The story was that the Hunters were selling the franchise.

"It was funny at the start, but then it wasn't funny anymore," he said. "Kids want Dale to coach them and we were getting back stories that they'd heard we were leaving. It went like wildfire. Come on, people."

The Hunters were, in fact, selling the junior B Petrolia Jets that they'd taken over to help make sure the franchise wasn't lost to the area.

"We don't need the money. We don't live big so it didn't make any sense. The fun part of it has been winning with a good brand of hockey and entertaining the fans the past two years. It's nice to see full houses cheering like hell; it makes it all special."

Back when they were playing in the NHL, there was at least one time the brothers nearly came to blows during a game between Mark's Montreal Canadiens and Dale's Quebec Nordiques.

How do a pair of combative guys manage to avoid conflicts running such a high-profile operation with so many finite decisions to be made as the team goes forward?

"Well, we don't always agree, but we disagree with respect," Mark said. "Same with the players and it's a reason for our success. They have respect for each other and what each can do, what each can bring to the table."

Some teams are the personification of their coach but not this one. As a player, Dale Hunter was a combination of skill, pugnacity and remorseless physicality that made him the only NHL player to exceed 300 goals and 3,000 minutes in penalties (323 and 3,565).

His team is tough enough, but didn't arrive at this pinnacle by pushing people around. That might have to be persona of some future Knights team. This one swamps you with a river of goals while damming up their own end of the rink.

Mark Hunter has forgotten all the kilometres he has logged. But when he looks onto the bench at tomorrow night's playoff opener against Guelph Storm, though, he knows why he accumulated them.


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