Reaping what they sow

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 5:50 PM ET

LONDON -- It is more than intriguing that while London Knights coach Dale Hunter has been sowing the seeds of a Memorial Cup victory in his players' heads this week, his brother -- Knights general manager Mark -- was planting seeds on their Petrolia-area farmland.

Time waits for no man, whether it's planting soybeans or developing a champion junior hockey team. It's something the Hunters knew when they bought the franchise in May 2000. And they have adhered to it as closely with their hockey team as they have with the 760 hectares of farmland they accumulated during their combined 31 years playing in the National Hockey League.

Together, they set out to nurture a team of teenagers toward the tournament at hand. Everything they have done was designed for this. And just like the soybeans, with the Memorial Cup, it's wait and see.

When the Hunters bought the franchise from the Tarry family, everyone expected their extensive hockey backgrounds would stand them in good stead. Nobody expected it to unfold as quickly as it has. Inside five years, the Knights became a 59-win team that eclipsed four Canadian Hockey League records and broke or tied 16 Ontario Hockey League marks this season.

Okay, how did they get the team to this point? They went back to the principles learned on the farm. No. 1 is hard work.

"Dale and I put our hearts into the organization and good things usually happen to any business when you take a 24/7 approach and it's constantly on your mind to improve," Mark said. "Like in farming, you don't count hours, you count success. In farming, the job isn't done until the crop is off. Our job is to win the Memorial Cup."

Neither the hockey team nor the farming has been easy. While many Londoners appreciate the focus the team has brought to the city, some are resentful.

Part of that is a curious aloofness toward anyone not from London, a city where natives tend to ask what high school you attended.

And there are those who saw the Hunter clan as rough-hewn outsiders, with Dale characterized as the embodiment of hockey evil for his tumultuous 19-year NHL career.

Some people are not wild about the notion of anyone succeeding in business, let alone guys doing it in a city/private enterprise facility they feel does not return enough to the city coffers. A saving grace for guys who know how to cut a deal (signage, concessions, etc.) is that they haven't changed and don't flaunt their success on or off the ice.

Many former players get involved in businesses that don't work out. When the chance to buy the Knights came up, the Hunters didn't hesitate.

"We've always been involved in something we know about," Dale said. "We know hockey and we know farming."

There is some overlap, with two to three weeks of planting in the spring and the same amount of time harvesting in the fall. With the draft concluded, Mark has some open days to help with the planting, which involves family and hired help.

Behind it all is a burning desire to see it through, a pragmatism that helped the brothers pull the trigger on deals that saw nephews Logan Hunter and Rick Steadman traded.

The good of the team and the term they use so often -- character -- helps explain why the Hunters have backed away from some gifted players.

CRUCIAL DRAFT

The draft of players born in 1985 was critical to the team's success. In 2001's OHL draft, the Knights got this year's CHL leading scorer Corey Perry, fifth-round surprise and captain Danny Syvret, Dale's son Dylan Hunter and goaltender Gerald Coleman in the second round along with sixth-rounder Marc Methot. Astute trades this season brought in Rob Schremp, Danny Fritsche, Adam Dennis, Jeff Whitfield and Daniel Girardi.

"The team was built for this year," Dale said. "I never experienced anything like this in my life."

But what if the Knights don't win the Memorial Cup as an exclamation point to their stunning season?

"We revamp and go for it again," Hunter said.

The job is not done until the crop is off.


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