Best junior team ever?

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:45 AM ET

LONDON, Ont. -- It is one of those impossible "best-ever" arguments that keep talk radio and bar owners in business.

London Knights: Best-ever junior hockey team?

Maybe. Maybe not. But, if not, they're so darn close it really doesn't matter.

"I've seen them all for the past 35 years and as far as I'm concerned this is the finest team ever to win this trophy," said Don Brankley who, for all his experience, might be biased. After all, he has been the Knights trainer, through thick and thin -- mostly thin -- since 1970.

"We learned a lesson last year when we lost the division final. The kids walked in the door this past August and, to a man, they committed themselves to winning this cup. They wanted to win it the right way. That meant going through the front door and that's how they did it -- right through the front door."

Having polished off Sidney Crosby and the Rimouski Oceanic for the Memorial Cup as if the Oceanic was some beer-league outfit last night, all that's left is to place the Knights in history. The final score was 4-0, but it was evident the Knights called off the dogs early in the third period.

This is a hockey team that played 90 hockey games this year. They went 79-9-2. Not bad, for starters.

They set a Canadian Hockey League record without losing even once in their first 31 games. When the regular season ended, they had won 59 of 68 games, losing seven and tying two. Only one of the losses came on home ice.

In the OHL playoffs, they lost twice -- once to Kitchener and once at home to Ottawa -- while winning 16. Here at the Memorial Cup, they were a perfect 4-0.

No team in recent memory has been even close to that kind of excellence. Decades ago, when NHL teams controlled the top junior talent, the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs routinely put together super teams of juniors that would probably be in London's league. Even better, maybe.

But in today's major junior hockey world, there are 56 teams (58 next year) and nobody controls all the talent. Junior teams have to be built from the ground up, just the same as pro clubs. Nobody has done it better than the Hunter brothers in London.

"I saw those Montreal Junior Canadien teams of the late 1960s," said Pierre McGuire, the former NHL coach and current TSN analyst. "I think (the Canadiens) probably had more NHL players on their roster, but there's no way they were a better junior team than this."

"It's not for me to say," said Dan Fritsche, a dazzling player who might well be Corey Perry's equal as the best player on the best team.

"Obviously, I'm too young to have seen enough of the great teams. Hopefully, history will look back on us as one of the best ever. I don't think we're going to see a team like this for awhile."

Wherever they rank, these teenagers forever will be linked. That's the part that warms the heart of captain Danny Syvret.

"I've talked with a lot of NHL players and most of them still cherish their junior memories," he said. "For all of us, it's our first time away from home, taking our first steps toward a pro career or wherever our lives are taking us. This is our last day together as a team, but 10 years down the road we're going to see each other and there will always be a special bond."

It was pointed out to Syvret that few hockey teams, junior or otherwise, can get through a nine-month season with only nine losses.

"And thank God," said Syvret without hesitation, "that we didn't make it 10 tonight."

We'll give the last word to David Branch, commissioner of the Ontario Hockey League and president of the Canadian Hockey League, the umbrella organization that administers major junior hockey across the country.

"The record books will show it, and all of you here know it," said Branch, as he presented the trophy at centre ice in front of a house packed with London supporters.

"The London Knights are one of the greatest teams ever to play for this trophy."

Seems about right.


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