One 67 will have lots of fans

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:00 AM ET

He will be playing in front of 9,090 fans jammed into the John Labatt Centre, most of whom will be cheering wildly for someone else. The atmosphere will be loud and raucous.

He'll be playing a London Knights team that has lost only once in the building in 41 games.

He'll be playing a team that hasn't won an OHL title in its 40-year history and desperately wants to rectify that.

Mark Mancari can hardly wait. He's coming home.

Mancari will lead his Ottawa 67's into the JLC tomorrow night in the first game of the best-of-seven league final.

He isn't sure how many relatives he'll have in the building but there will be quite a few, led by his parents Gabe and Christine.

"I don't know how many will be coming -- probably 11 or 12. If I had enough tickets, all my family would be going. But we have about 35 family members," Gabe says.

"It's going to be amazing to see Dale Hunter and Brian Kilrea coaching. What they've done is great."

Gabe has usually had a full house every night that Mark plays since he opted to buy a TV cable package that offers Ottawa 67's games.

"Some nights I should have charged admission to my house, there were so many people," he said.

What has happened to the city with the Knights' season is "the best thing that's ever happened to hockey in London," he added.

Fans haven't had much of a chance to see Mancari because he plays in another OHL conference. They'll see a local-player-makes-good story in the flesh. They'll see a guy who has had a tremendous -- and adventuresome -- playoff run, scoring nine goals and seven assists.

"He's a big powerful guy with soft hands who can handle himself around the net," said Knights assistant coach Jeff Perry.

Mancari was also the focus of a Todd Bertuzzi-Steve Moore-type incident in a series against Sudbury. Wolves tough guy Kyle Musselman sucker-punched Mancari from behind, driving him into the ice. Musselman, who was eligible for an over-age year next year, was suspended for life from the OHL.

Mancari wasn't seriously hurt.

After all that, he gets to show his stuff in London.

"I am really pumped for this," said Mancari. "Going home to play for the final and the Memorial Cup is unbelievable. I'm really excited. My family is really excited."

London fans are a welcoming bunch when it comes to one of their own. Mancari was a Knights fan when he was growing up. His parents were season ticket-holders until the team moved into the JLC and the family billeted such players as Dennis Purdie and Chris Zanutto.

But there's a prize at stake here, a prize that Knights fans have been awaiting for 40 years.

"I've thought a lot about how they are going to react. Are they going to boo me?" Mancari asked. "Fans in London are pretty good. I don't think they'll be all over me. They're more worried about the win.

"I'll have aunts, uncles, the whole family there. They told me to go out and give it everything."

There are a number of people surprised the 67's are in the final. They were seeded sixth, finishing only five points behind the first-place team. They finished 44 points behind the Knights.

"A lot of teams have underestimated us," Mancari said. "But everything is coming together. I don't feel so much pressure because everyone is producing, so the pressure is not the same as it was."

He knows the task is formidable. But with no one expecting the 67's to win, the pressure is squarely on the Knights.

"We don't care if they were 44 points ahead of us," he said. "We're just going to go out and work our butts off. Don't get me wrong, we have a lot of respect for them. But if they are going to underestimate us, we're going to take advantage of that. We have the potential to give London a real run."

In the meantime, Mancari, 19, is looking forward to a little home cooking, perhaps a plate of gnocchi, a favourite.

"This potentially being my last year, I wouldn't want to end it in any other way."

Except with what would be a surprising OHL championship.


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