Season to remember

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:03 AM ET

It is a question that is rolled out frequently: Are the London Knights the best team in the history of Canadian junior hockey?

It's quite a mouthful, considering junior hockey has been around for more than a century. But it's not unreasonable after their record-pulverizing season.

First, they have to win the Memorial Cup. But even if they do, any debate will have no satisfactory conclusion.

"You have to measure a team against its own era, same as an individual player," says writer Frank Orr, who has covered junior hockey and dozens of Memorial Cups since the 1950s. "There's no doubt about it, though: the London Knights are terrific and are in the same company as other memorable junior teams."

Owner/general manager Mark Hunter isn't ready to make any pronouncements until the tournament is over.

"You have to remember that it takes four series to win the Stanley Cup," he said. "It takes four series (for the non-host teams) to get to the Memorial Cup. And you only get three years (to build a team before the graduation of top players)."

The late Carl Brewer once put it succinctly at an Ontario Hockey League all-star dinner.

"Your junior years are the ones you'll remember best from your career and only a very few ever get even one shot at a Memorial Cup," the NHL veteran told the gathering. "You can get a few tries at the Stanley Cup, but if you get one at the Memorial, you're lucky."

However the Knights are viewed in posterity, most hockey observers agree their record season places them in the pantheon of great junior teams. And there have been a few. NHL vice-president Jim Gregory has a candidate for best ever, but back to that in a minute.

The Memorial Cup is a fascinating competition. It's not as big a blast as football's Grey Cup, yet in some ways it's larger. It's not as old as the Stanley Cup, but its history is as rich.

And as all junior operators know, it's harder to win than drawing to an inside straight in poker.

The most important thing the Memorial Cup has going for it is something few time-honoured competitions can boast. It is representative of an area of Canadian sport that is growing in size and sophistication.

Junior hockey is big and getting bigger in terms of cities, fans and television. Next season, with teams in Newfoundland and New Brunswick, there will be 58 franchises under the CHL banner.

The Cup truly connects every region in the country and when the 87th renewal kicks off here this week, it will do so with four teams representing 56 cities that account for almost half of Canada's population.

Contrary to assumptions the Cup will pour zillions into the local economy, keep in mind that more than two-thirds of the bottoms in the seats will belong to London fans, who aren't likely to be flooding into hotel rooms or filling their gas tanks and gift bags.

But it's a boost to the host city, certainly, especially when it gets to strut its stuff on national television and news outlets across the country.

Forget the old municipal chest-thumping about something like this putting London on the map. It's already there. But the Memorial Cup certainly will place a new focus on the city for unknown benefits down the way.

David Branch, president of the Canadian Hockey League and the OHL commissioner, is naturally quick to extol the virtues of his pride and joy.

"I have a biased outlook, but I don't think any other sports competition in Canada matches it. No other sports league reaches all regions like junior hockey and no other competition gets the same sustained level of focus that the Memorial Cup does over a nine-day period."

Branch is representative of a new breed of hockey executive that has taken junior hockey uptown with marketing and media savvy that has helped make the game a good buy in corporate or fan terms.

There are wrinkles to be ironed out, as seen in the hyperaggressive actions displayed here between the Kitchener Rangers and the Knights during their playoff series. The hits were more egregious than the fights and junior hockey remains, as does hockey at most levels up to the NHL, on a tightrope between what is acceptable to some fans but not to others.

And there remain long-pondered questions about paying the quasi-professional players a pittance while fans throng to watch and often pay exorbitant prices at the concessions, which in London amount to more than $7 a head on average. Junior players are only vaguely comparable to trades apprentices.

It should be pointed out not all junior teams across the nation enjoy the same economics as teams like the Knights or the Ottawa 67's and if junior hockey started getting into the wildly fluctuating pay structure of the NHL -- well, we all know about the NHL's current problems.

For all that, junior hockey works. Initiatives such as providing university educations for players -- Knights captain Danny Syvret, a top student at Western, is a poster boy for it -- have gone a long way toward presenting a sensitivity that previously was lacking.

As for the Knights being the best ever, the coach of a former Memorial Cup winner looked at the team photo of the 1964 national champion Toronto Marlboros on his office wall at NHL headquarters and sounded as though he was still in awe.

"I get asked about London a lot and I've seen them; they're a great team," said Gregory, who would go on to manage the Toronto Maple Leafs. "I remember (Oshawa Generals manager) Wren Blair telling Bep Guidolin over a coffee one day, 'Look Bep, you coach 17 guys and don't tell Bobby Orr a single thing. Let him alone.'

"It was kind of the same with me. Somebody told me, 'If you can't win with this team, you can't coach.' "

On one line, Wayne Carleton and Pete Stemkowski had 42 goals apiece, Ron Ellis 46. Mike Walton contributed another 41 goals over the 54-game season and would join those three, plus Jim McKenny, Rod Seiling, Brit Selby, Gary Smith, Gary Dineen and Nick Harbaruk in the NHL.

There's a powerful reason for the powerhouse. It had a ready-made edge. What was known as the Metro Junior league, sponsored by the Leafs with all players on contract, was disbanded and the best players were funneled to the Marlboros.

The Marlboros lost six games in the 1963-64 regular season and just one in the playoffs with a roster that not only was talented but had an average weight greater than some NHL teams. In the one-game Ontario Hockey Association final, the Marlies were a man short for 13 minutes of the first period against the Niagara Falls Flyers and still emerged with a 2-0 lead and went on to win.

They would beat North Bay of the Northern Ontario league, Scotty Bowman-coached Montreal Notre Dame de Grace for the Eastern Canada title and sweep the powerful Edmonton Oil Kings before four full houses at Maple Leaf Gardens.

Again, as Frank Orr says, it's an argument that cannot be won or lost, just as those endless confabs about the best heavyweight boxing champion of all time. You can make a case for the Kitchener Rangers and Peterborough Petes, the old Barrie Flyers or Edmonton Oil Kings or New Westminster Bruins or Montreal Junior Canadiens of the 1950s and 1960s or go even farther back to the Winnipeg Falcons or Stratford Midgets and the legendary Howie Morenz.

He adds an important point often overlooked. Every player in the Memorial Cup should be proud to have made it.

"I've always felt that sometimes too much emphasis is placed on NHL potential in rating junior players and not enough credit given for what they did at that level," he said. " U.S. college football is a big pro training ground and the NFL draft gets big attention, but players are remembered and revered as college stars. Too often, great junior performances and seasons get lost in the pro shuffle."

Based on their accomplishments this season, it can safely be said these London Knights are one of the best junior teams ever to hit the ice since the OHA was formed in 1890.

Parading the Memorial Cup around the John Labatt Centre ice would cement it.


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