Brian Kilrea and Dale Hunter will become bitter rivals as opposing coaches when the OHL championship begins in London tomorrow night.
But yesterday, they sounded like the presidents of each other's fan club.
Hunter praised Kilrea for making key trades during the season that improved the 67's so significantly that the team transformed from pretender to contender.
"It's going to be a real challenge," said Hunter, coach of the high-flying Knights who are 12-1 in the playoffs and finished the regular season with a 59-7-2 record with only one loss on home ice.
"Coach Kilrea is one of the best coaches ever in this league. This team, we played them earlier in the year, and it's not the same team. (Kilrea) did a great job as the GM and made good trades.
IMPRESSED BY PETE SWEEP
"To sweep a good team like Peterborough, they played very, very well. Peterborough had a very, very good team, so that's a tribute to Killer," he said.
The Ottawa coach, in turn, trumpeted the work of the opposing coach and his younger brother, Mark, the London GM.
"I saw Dale when he broke into the league, and you knew he was going to be a feisty competitor and he was just made to be a coach," said Kilrea.
"And Mark deserves a lot of credit for pulling out all the stops to make sure that if there were any spots that he could improve on, he did."
Kilrea's association with the Hunter clan goes back to 1978 when the Montreal Canadiens drafted Dave Hunter, the oldest of the hockey-playing Hunter brothers.
He met their father, Dick, at the draft and they became friends.
"We sat down and had a beer, and ever since then, we've always enjoyed the company of each other at some of the drafts, and on different occasions," said Kilrea.
The Ottawa coach said he expects the Knights to play just like their coach did during his 20-year NHL career: Gritty, feisty, and potent with the puck near the net.
PLAY WITH AN EDGE
"They all go out there and they play with a little bit of an edge," said Kilrea.
"They play the game the way it's supposed to be. When you go watch Dale's team, you know you're going to get a 60-minute game."
SICK BAY: Ottawa LW Jeremy Akeson missed a third straight practice because of pneumonia. But during a phone interview yesterday, the overage 67's winger said he felt better and hoped to join the team for this morning's practice at the Civic Centre. "I'm not 100%, but hopefully I'll be okay for (tomorrow's) game. If I get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids, that should help." Akeson got sick before the Eastern Conference championship against Peterborough. He scored the overtime winner in the first game of the four-game sweep. Akeson, who also has asthma, is taking antibiotics.
MAKING AN EXCEPTION: Kilrea supports the OHL's ruling that allows 14-year-old John Tavares to be eligible for Saturday's draft as an "exceptional player." Kilrea said players like Denis Potvin, Peter Lee, Jason Spezza, Kirk Muller and Rico Fata broke into the league at a young age and became great players. "They're pretty lofty names. So if this kid can come in and contribute in the same fashion as those other guys, then great." Tavares turns 15 before the start of the next OHL season.
IN THE CREASE: The league announced the officials for the final yesterday. Brad Beer, Mark Hicks and Terry Hobor will referee. Among the linesmen working the final will be 26-year veteran Ken Cox, who will retire at the end of the season.