Hunter commitment to coach may lure Gagner

JIM CRESSMAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 11:05 AM ET

Dale Hunter is committed to coaching the London Knights next season and that just might be the guarantee that lures 16-year-old centre Sam Gagner to the team.

Gagner, son of former NHLer Dave Gagner of Chatham, was the Knights' second pick in the recent OHL draft.

He was highly rated but didn't go until the fourth round -- the Knights had no picks in the second and third rounds -- after telling teams he's agreed to play with Sioux City of the United States Hockey League next season.

"He's a great coach, he's got lots of experience and that would definitely be a factor in my decision," Gagner said as he attended last night's game between the Knights and Ottawa 67's.

He saw the city and the John Labatt Centre for the first time, accompanied by Knights general manager Mark Hunter.

"I had made a commitment to going to Sioux City next year, but this is causing questioning in my head," said Gagner, whose family has been living in Mississauga.

"It's really back and forth right now. This arena is unbelievable, this city is amazing and it's a great organization."

When asked if the smile on his face was an indication he'll choose the Knights, he said: "We'll see."

He watched the game from the Hunters' suite, along with OHL commissioner David Branch.

Gagner, five-foot-nine and 175 pounds, had 63 goals and 173 points in 69 games with the Toronto Marlies minor midgets this past season.

If he plays in the USHL, he would be able to accept a U.S. scholarship in two years.

"The kid will eventually win the scoring race in our league, that's how good he is," said Dale Hunter, who played 19 years in the NHL.

Hunter said the same of Corey Perry when the Knights drafted him in the first round in 2001. Perry won the OHL scoring title this season.

Hunter said he gave Dave Gagner his word that he'll coach next season.

Hunter and his brother Mark, who played 12 years in the NHL and won a Stanley Cup, bought the team in May 2000. Dale went behind the bench the next season.

"That's official, I'll coach," next season, Dale Hunter said last night. "I enjoy it. It's good to work with the kids and build something.

"This (championship season) just wasn't happening this year. It was built steps at a time, growing each year. I've been on the ice every day with these kids and it's been fun."


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