At last, fans' loyalty rewarded

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 11:02 AM ET

Four decades after the London Knights came on the scene with hopes of winning their league championship, they finally pulled it off convincingly and the man best-positioned to understand it said it best.

At last, Don Brankley said, fans' loyalty has been rewarded.

He would know. The team trainer is the longest-serving member of the franchise with 35 years in.

He knows the bitterness of defeat, the frustration of coming close, the abject emptiness of missing the playoffs.

What he never knew until last night was winning the last game.

"I always felt sad at this time," Brankley said as the Knights, with the Ontario Hockey League championship trophy in their grasp, lit up giant cigars in the raucous dressing room. "I don't think I've ever been this happy."

He was as happy for the fans as himself.

Brankley recognizes the people for whom he's happiest. They've been coming longer than he's been around.

"They're the ones who deserve this," he said. "They've been so loyal for so long."

Against trying circumstances, he might have added. It was only nine years ago the Knights racked up a futility record of staggering proportions, an ineptitude that resulted in 60 losses in 66 regular season games against three wins and three ties.

Moreover, that was in a rapidly fading Ice House, formerly known as London Gardens, a crumbling playpen that defied fan comfort within and had an element of danger outside. Until the parking lot was upgraded, there was a chance a fan or car could disappear in the mire.

All that has changed with a superb team in a well-appointed arena designed for this century. And the Knights have taken advantage of it with a host team that goes into the Memorial Cup as OHL champion.

The influence of a notable former Knight played a role in a distinct team personality. Detroit Red Wings' Brendan Shanahan took the team to dinner in late winter and suggested they get rid of the celebratory bench skate-by popular among junior teams.

They did, opting for quick congratulations on the ice before lining up to resume play. To that was added another businesslike wrinkle: No playoff beards, wild haircuts or technicolour tresses.

"We decided to be different, to not do anything like that at all," captain Danny Syvret said. "That in itself made us different."

The Knights are different, all right. For all their youth and vigour, they're a deadly serious bunch.

Last night was the finest hockey moment for many of them, their coaches included, but amid the celebrating before what must have been the noisiest 9,090 fans ever assembled, they know there is more to come.

An air of expectation permeated the rain-slicked streets surrounding the John Labatt Centre as game time approached as fans, some of whom have waited a generation for this, jostled their way to their seats in a holiday mood.

A few without tickets could get one from a scalper at five times the face value of $25. It could be worse. They could be asked to pay $600 for a ticket on the Internet for the Memorial Cup opener between the Knights and the Rimouski Oceanic and heralded Sidney Crosby next week.

Last night's magic moment comes after a season that could scarcely have unfolded more positively. It has continued right into the national final.

Organizers and Sportsnet, which will be carrying the games across the nation, could not ask for a more appropriate lineup of teams. Along with the OHL champs, there are the Western Hockey League defending champ Kelowna Rockets, along with Quebec's Rimouski and an Ottawa team that enjoys an enormous fan following in the capital.

The victory last night was big, very big for a captain who was a key member of Canada's junior world championship team. This came, Syvret pointed out, with a group of 16- to 20-year-olds who'd strived together since August.

One can only imagine what it will be like for them to win it all here. Brankley and all those fans who've waited so long were still savouring this one.

Here's a for-certain: Winning the Memorial Cup would put the final exclamation point on one of the greatest seasons in Canadian junior hockey history and surely emboss the Knights in the pantheon of top teams in the 100-plus years of the junior game.


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