It's a time Knights won't ever forget

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:26 AM ET

For the London Knights, the future is now.

These are the heady days they'll remember best as the years pass, no matter what happens during next week's Memorial Cup.

Ask a veteran NHL player about his second and third season in the league and he'll be able to recite highlights, wins and losses.

Ask him about his second and third years as a junior and he can spout names, dates and a litany of good times.

This isn't lost on the Knights, whose run to the OHL championship was a final seal stamped on a season that would be rated spectacular in any sport.

"They say, 'Always cherish your junior years,' " Brandon Prust said as the Knights skated out yesterday for their first full practice since winning the OHL title Saturday.

"I know 10 years from now everyone is going to look back and remember these days. It's something we'll never forget."

NHL veterans are almost unanimous in that view. The Memorial Cup is a stunning accomplishment, but in some ways it doesn't compare to a season of striving alongside like-minded elite teammates to win a championship that is very difficult to win.

They are teenagers and young men who have grown together athletically, socially and culturally, guys from diverse parts of the province and continent who are on the cusp of professionalism but with all the amateur trappings.

There is school or just hanging out together still doing teenage things.

But they did it, won the first OHL title for the Knights in 40 years.

To that extent, they are still savouring their success.

"It's a great sense of accomplishment after working hard all last summer and working through all the pressure to succeed," said Danny Fritsche.

A fellow who had nothing to do with the franchise other than support it from its inception was delighting in the refracted rays of success.

Joe Daley, 72, has been around for all 40 years and has the two seats he subscribed to from the old London Gardens/Ice House.

"Dale and Mark (the Hunter brothers who own, coach and manage the team) gave 'em to me, Section 1, Row 0, seats 30 and 31."

To a guy like Daley, who is considering something Knights-related for his tombstone, the Memorial Cup's military roots have special meaning. He'll turn up at the Kelowna-Knights game wearing his uniform from the Korean War, where he was in the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.

He has seen the recent high of the franchise, but also the low, the 60-loss disaster of nine years ago.

"I went to 98 per cent of the games that year," he says. "It was pretty bad."

Daley feels this is the best team in the franchise's history.

"We've had better players some years but this is the first and only team in every sense," Daley said. "No Knights team ever gelled like this one has. You could see it right from the start; this was going to be a special team."

Trainer Don Brankley said he still gets goosebumps thinking about last Saturday's irrevocable step up as league champ. The players marvel at the experience but in the end are bound to put the horns and cheering crowds outside the John Labatt Centre on the shelf, to be relished another time.

"You have to put it behind you," scoring leader Corey Perry said. "I've heard that your junior years are the best time of your life and this season has sure lived up to that. But now, we have to look ahead."

Ahead is the opener of the four-team tournament against the Rimouski Oceanic on Saturday night. And maybe the start of a new set of memories.


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