The standard for greatness

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:33 AM ET

London Knights fans were spreading out from the John Labatt Centre in loud concentric waves, but one ex-Knight hadn't left.

Hanging around to savour the Memorial Cup victory was Gene Chiarello, who backstopped the Knights to within a game of making it to the final in 1999.

Chiarello never cringed as a goaltender and never flinched when he underwent a successful operation for brain cancer.

On this night, he wept when the Memorial Cup was held aloft. So did Mayor Anne Marie DeCicco. So did a lot of others.

A decade or two from now, when witnesses to the Knights' epic Memorial Cup victory will swell from the 8,905 who were present to about 18,000 who said they were, folks might still be talking about it with a bit of a mist in the eye.

Might is the word because not minutes after their resounding 4-0 victory Sunday night came talk of a repeat appearance in the coach's room. They were talking about another one in three years. Fans tend to focus on the most recent victory and these guys are talking about getting back to the Cup in that span.

If you're into numerology, maybe four years makes a bit more sense.

It was 40 years after their inception when the Knights finally won it. They went four straight in the final series. They won the final game 4-0.

For now, the amazing season, playoff and championship the Knights put together is the stuff of a new legend.

We don't know whether this was the best team in the history of Canadian junior hockey, but the absolute dominance it showed in the pivotal game sent longtime hockey followers away with the notion it was the best they'd seen in their lifetimes. This was one fine hockey team.

There certainly will never be a team quite like it. Elite teams will come and they will go, each memorable in its own way, but none will be quite the same as the poised, extravagantly skilled and superbly focused Knights of 2004-05.

It was some run, one with an Olympic-style secret. There was a special Knights coin embedded below centre ice for the tournament.

Numbers are a mere backdrop to the flesh-and-blood striving that went into it all but they cannot be ignored: Of 90 regular season and playoff games, they won 79, lost nine, tied two. And that was with key guys gone to the world junior championship, then taken out of the lineup for the final few meaningless games of the season.

The Knights' record-cracking season included their famous 31-game unbeaten string and continues with a long list of league and national records for scoring, road and away wins and all the other statistical flourishes of a special team.

No wonder they'll all be off together on a free Mexican vacation soon. The Knights were simply a terrific team.

And one terrific story. The Memorial Cup win certainly sits high on the the list of momentous events in a city with some pretty rich history.

Sandy Somerville winning the U.S. amateur golf title in 1932 is one. The London Majors taking the world sandlot baseball title in 1948 is another.

What about the time the London Knights were the only team to knock off the touring Soviet national hockey team in 1971 -- the same team the pros shaded in their epic Summit Series a year later?

You could list among major moments the Canadian Open golf tournament in 1970, the Knights' thunderous eight-game playoff series against the Hamilton Fincups in 1977, the LPGA stop here in 1994 and Western Mustangs national championships in hockey and football.

Stepping away from sports, the 1958 escape of Slippery the seal from Storybook Gardens captured international interest. Karen Baldwin's Miss Universe win and the Ontario premierships won by John Robarts and David Peterson are up there.

But this, with the focus of the nation on them, has to out-strip them all. London embraced the Knights for months and the ardour grew right through and beyond the magic moment of victory.

As always, success has thousands of teammates. Fans went from We Want The Cup to We Won The Cup. One cringed a bit at The Free Press headline We Won! but it bespoke the mood of a city.

In the end, it will be as captain Dan Syvret pointed out -- the Knights will always be close, presumably as close as those British soccer champions who vow no player will ever walk alone.

It is completely appropriate to compare the Knights to teams such as the best Edmonton Oilers squads or those of Manchester United or New York Yankees or any other dominant teams. Within their own milieu, the Knights were.

This didn't just happen. The London Knights were not merely a bunch of players who happened to click overnight and ride a wave to victory. Everything about this team was carefully planned by owners with guts, savvy and the financial will to go the distance when they bought the team five years ago.

It has been said before but the Hunter brothers, coach Dale and general manager Mark, are farmers whose lives, before and after their combined 31 years as professional hockey players, remain deeply involved in Petrolia-area agriculture.

If you're smart enough to make it in farming, you can succeed in any business, even hockey.

They've compared hockey to agriculture. The parallels are apt in the sense that you plant, you nurture and, if you work smart enough and hard enough, you reap.

There was a look on Mark Hunter's face after the final that went beyond the words he was saying, words about character players and dedication and all the generalities that lead to championships.

There was joy. There was relief. There was vindication. And there was a look of justification that said the time and effort and setbacks and difficult decisions finally and irrevocably proved to have been worthwhile.

It has been said the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. It could be said the Memorial Cup was won on the farm fields of Southwestern Ontario.

The fact that so many people are even discussing the relative greatness of the new Memorial Cup champions immediately indicates this was a special team.

All of Canada saw the fluid quality of its transitions, the fine touches, the bewildering speed and patterns of the power play, the poise and the patience of this London Knights hockey team.

Similar teams might come along. None will ever be quite like this one.


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