Knights busted through Memorial Cup front door

JIM CRESSMAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:16 AM ET

The London Knights are unique when stacked up against the other three teams in this year's Memorial Cup.

No, it's not the Knights' Canadian Hockey League- record 31-game unbeaten streak that sets them apart.

No, it's not the four other CHL records they either broke or tied this season, including best winning percentage and fewest goals against.

No, it's not the 16 OHL records they either set or equalled, including most wins, most points and the first team in league history to register back-to-back 50-win and 100-point seasons.

No, it's none of that, although the Rimouski Oceanic, Kelowna Rockets and Ottawa 67's did none of that and likely envy the Knights' season.

But the Oceanic, Rockets and 67's have all been to a previous Memorial Cup and won it -- Ottawa in 1999 and 1984, Kelowna in 2004 and Rimouski in 2000.

It has taken 40 years for the Knights to make it to the national championship.

They came close twice, in 1977 when they lost the OHL final to the 67's in six games, and in 1999 when they lost to the Belleville Bulls in seven games.

Long-suffering Knights fans had to be wondering if they would ever see their beloved team play for the biggest prize in major junior hockey.

Then, a year ago, London's bid to play host to the 2005 Memorial Cup was successful. But the players were determined not to go in the "back door." The Knights wanted to go in the "front door" as OHL champions, a goal they set from the first day of training camp.

They busted down that front door, first completing the regular season with a 59-7-2-0 record, including just one loss on John Labatt Centre ice.

Their season-opening 31-game unbeaten streak captured the interest and imagination of a hockey nation and the feat was commemorated by a banner that hangs from the rafters at the east end of the JLC.

"It's fitting that in their 40th year that they be recognized as one of the greatest teams to ever play . . . and this record is not just about wins, it's about the way the London Knights hockey club captured the attention of the entire country," OHL commissioner David Branch told the crowd the night the banner was unfurled.

Meanwhile, forward Corey Perry and defenceman Danny Syvret did the team and city proud at the world junior championship as Canada won the gold medal for the first time in eight years.

In the postseason, the Knights swept the Guelph Storm and Windsor Spitfires in the first two rounds, before beating the Kitchener Rangers in five games for the Western Conference crown and then the 67's in five games to take the J. Ross Robertson Cup, emblematic of OHL supremacy.

But this journey began long before the first game on Sept. 24. It began in 1965 when London was granted its major junior franchise.

(The Knights are the OHL's fourth-oldest continuously operated franchise, ranking behind the Peterborough Petes, who joined in 1956, and the Rangers and Oshawa Generals, both admitted in 1963.)

It was all made possible when the Treasure Island Gardens opened in 1963 and was home to the junior B London Nationals for the first two years.

The Nationals had a working agreement with the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs and wore the famous blue and white.

In 1965, the Nationals were admitted to the then-Ontario Hockey Association Junior A League.

With direct NHL sponsorships of junior teams ending and Treasure Island Properties going into receivership, 49-year-old Ottawa businessman Howard Darwin, a high school dropout and self-made millionaire who co-owned the 67's, came to the rescue and bought the Gardens and team for $500,000.

The Knights team's name came about through a contest and the green and gold colours were adopted.

The Knights may have lost to the 67's in the 1977 final but it was an epic eight-game semifinal against the St. Catharines Fincups that fans still talk about.

Dan Eastman's overtime goal in Game 8 at the Gardens, deflecting a shot from the point by Rob Ramage, gave the locals the win over the hated Fincups.

Darwin got out in 1987, selling the building for $2.3 million and the team for $1 to Jack Robillard, Bob Willson and Al Martin, all from the Brantford-Paris area.

Seven years later there was another change in ownership, with the Tarry family of St. Thomas investing $3.6 million.

The family immediately pulled off the greatest public relations blunder in franchise history, changing the colours to eggplant and teal and the crest from the knight's head to a Spider-Man comic book character called Knightro.

The Gardens was also renamed the Ice House, with team president Doug Tarry Jr. justifying the changes as a means to ridding the city of 29 years of losing.

The Tarrys did give a whole new meaning to the word, losing in 1995-96 as the team went 3-60-3, which still stands today as the worst performance in CHL history.

In May 2000, the Tarrys sold to former NHLers Dale and Mark Hunter from the Petrolia area for $3.8 million. It was the first time the franchise was owned by people with a hockey background.

The Hunters bought a team that had missed the playoffs but they had a dream. They restored the green and gold and retired Knightro -- and promised an OHL title and a Memorial Cup for this championship-starved city.

"We're just two hockey players and two brothers who get along really well who want to own a hockey team," Mark Hunter said their first day on the job.

"The Memorial Cup is supposed to be the hardest cup to win. Our goal is to win the Memorial Cup," Dale Hunter said.

Five years later, they have delivered on their first promise.

The second one will begin to play out tomorrow night.

LONDON KNIGHTS

Home rink: John Labatt Centre (9,090 capacity)

Colours: Green, gold, black and white

General manager: Mark Hunter

Head coach: Dale Hunter

Assistants: Jacques Beaulieu, Jeff Perry, Dave Rook

NHL draft picks: The Knights have 10 players currently property of NHL teams: Forward Corey Perry (Anaheim), forward Rob Schremp (Edmonton), forward Danny Fritsche (Columbus), forward David Bolland (Chicago), forward Brandon Prust (Calgary), forward Trevor Kell (Chicago), forward Dylan Hunter (Buffalo), defenceman Marc Methot (Columbus), defenceman Frank Rediker (Boston), goalie Gerald Coleman (Tampa Bay).

Memorial Cup experience: Defenceman Bryan Rodney played as a rookie with the Ottawa 67's in the 2001 tournament in Regina. The 67's lost the tiebreaker game against the host Pats 5-0. Goalie Adam Dennis and defenceman Daniel Girardi were with the Guelph Storm last year in Kelowna. The Storm lost all three round-robin games. Head scout John McDonald was the Ottawa-area scout for the Hamilton Fincups when they went to the 1976 tournament in Montreal. The Fincups beat the New Westminster Bruins 5-2 in the final.


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