The London Knights' road to the Memorial Cup is littered with milestones.
We notice major milestones. Their dominance often dwarfs smaller points along the journey.
The long road ended for the Knights with a Memorial Cup milestone. The road included a milestone with the Ontario Hockey League championship, yet another first. The third most impressive comes early in the journey, marking the Knights' streak of 31 games without a loss.
But many times, it's the smaller milestones that make the journey a little smoother, a little easier. They also ensure you are travelling in the right direction.
Some say the first major step taken after Mark and Dale Hunter purchased the team in 2000 was a trade that landed Dennis Wideman. Wideman went on to a great junior career, setting the stage for long-term success.
The real foundation, however, was laid in 2001. That was the year the Knights held what turned out to be their miracle draft. Drafted that year were Corey Perry, Dylan Hunter, Gerald Coleman, Kyle Quincey, Danny Syvret, Marc Methot and Ryan MacDonald. Most stayed with the team. Some were used to trade for other players.
Quincey for Rob Schremp was the most significant.
The milestones are dotted with familiar names: Perry, OHL player of the year, most valuable player in the playoffs and Memorial Cup tournament, gold medallist at the world junior tournament; Syvret, top defenceman in the Canadian Hockey League, world junior tournament gold medallist; Dylan Hunter, who turned in his best season of junior hockey; Danny Fritsche, Methot, Bryan Rodney, Brandon Prust, David Bolland.
They all made significant contributions to the cause and have received the publicity their accomplishments deserved.
Others have slipped outside the spotlight, but have, in their own way, made significant contributions on the road to a championship.
When Mark Hunter shipped Mathis Olimb to Sarnia for Drew Larman, the move didn't cause much of a stir. Larman was a centre who didn't have great goal-scoring numbers. It turned out to be a move that would benefit the Knights in the faceoff circle and in killing penalties. It was also significant because he played tough in the corners and was able to play a checking role against top players from other teams. He also happens to have a good shot which he used to score some key goals.
The most indispensible addition to this team, the guy who filled all the potholes, who smoothed out the bumps on the road to the Memorial Cup, was Daniel Girardi. He gobbled up ice time, blocked dozens of shots and was a bull on the blueline. As well as Methot and Syvret played with Bryan Rodney injured, without Girardi, the Knights would have been in trouble.
Accepting change is proof of the desire for success. Rob Schremp is a consummate offensive star, a maestro with a hockey stick. But it was difficult for him to learn how to play defence. That inability led him to a very public, and, no doubt, embarrassing benching last year.
But Schremp learned. He worked hard to improve that aspect of his game. In the playoffs this year, he made several key defensive plays, helping his team win a Memorial Cup and improving his chances at becoming a professional player.
When it comes to taking it for the team, no one took it more than goaltender Gerald Coleman. Coleman produced startling numbers, in some cases the best in Canada. He never received the respect he deserved. Coleman had to share time with everyone. Despite Coleman having better numbers and producing a better late-season stretch, Dennis got the bulk of the goaltending duties in the playoffs.
Yet Coleman stepped in when needed, including a key game in Ottawa when Dennis was pulled. He played without fear. Not playing was likely eating him alive but he never popped off. Coleman could have been disruptive. Instead he showed mental toughness and great character.
Then came Game 4 of the Western Conference final against the Rangers in Kitchener with the Knights leading the series 2-1.
Trevor Kell and Rodney were out with injuries. Josh Beaulieu and Prust were out with suspensions. Syvret was playing with a strained neck that was so painful, he needed muscle stimulator treatment whenever he came off the ice.
The Knights were down 2-0 early in the first period. They came back but the Rangers tied it with 6.2 seconds left in the game to force overtime. David Bolland won it for the Knights.
This was the game that proved the Knights could respond to whatever challenge presented them. Jordan Foreman, Kelly Thomson and Adam Perry -- role players, for the most part, all season -- stepped up and played key roles in the victory.
It was that game which sent a message to the rest of junior hockey.
There was no road long enough or rough enough to prevent the Knights from travelling to its end.