Junior Knights success reflected in OHL draft

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:20 AM ET

It's going to have to be one heck of an encore.

But Joe O'Neill, president of the London Junior Knights minor hockey organization, believes it's possible. It would be quite an accomplishment.

Last year, for the first time in years, minor hockey players developed in this area made a significant mark on the junior hockey scene. The Junior Knights, and other organizations such as the Elgin-Middlesex Chiefs, watched as player after player was selected by junior hockey organizations.

We aren't just talking about players being drafted in late rounds in the hopes that a long shot would come in. We're talking junior hockey teams betting their future success on players developed in this area.

"You take a look at our 1989 team alone (minor midget-aged team). We had seven players drafted off that team," said O'Neill.

There were two more players developed in the Junior Knights system in that age group who played elsewhere last year, including Logan Couture, who played with the junior B St. Thomas Stars and was drafted 12th overall by the OHL Ottawa 67's.

"We had six of the top 44 players selected last year," O'Neill said.

Londoners will get a look at those players when major junior teams come in to play the London Knights.

Tomorrow, forward Jordan Skellet will be here with the Mississauga IceDogs for the Knights' final exhibition game. He was picked 17th overall. In about three weeks the Guelph Storm will be here and the expectation is that defenceman Drew Doughty, taken fifth overall, and Leigh Salters, a late second-round pick, will be in the lineup. And somewhere down the line, Adam Zamec will come to town. He was taken seventh in the second round by the St. Michael's Majors. Andrew Wilson went in the third round, 44th overall, to Kingston.

That's six in the first 44.

"There's no question that was an exceptional year," O'Neill said. "I don't know whether in terms of draft choices we will have the same thing again. But we just went through what was a successful selection process and I think we're going to have strong teams."

Of the 17 Junior Knights teams last year, 10 won league championships.

The midget AAA team won bronze in its regional championship. The minor midgets won silver in the OHL showcase tournament; the bantam AAA and peewee AAA teams won bronze in Ontario play; the peewee AA team won silver in the Ontario Hockey Federation championships.

Success breeds success. It also means minor hockey in this area is entering a phase of greatly increased profile.

"Let's face it," O'Neill said. "Team success is important but the bottom line is to improve the players' skills and development. I would say that 70 per cent of the practice time is given to improving and working on those skills."

And as minor hockey players develop, so will minor hockey. As the new Hockey Canada development model is implemented over time, minor hockey teams, specifically bantam and midget-aged divisions, should be able to keep more players playing minor hockey, rather than losing them to junior hockey teams.

The impact that should have on the quality of hockey at those groups will be extensive.

Minor hockey should be first and foremost fun for the individual. But that shouldn't preclude giving elite players an opportunity to advance their skills at a higher level.

In the past, even supposed elite-level minor hockey organizations in London failed. But the London Junior Knights have gone in the direction successful elite-level organizations have to gravitate toward. They've focused on always having a strong core of coaches together, training those coaches and ensuring that the hockey environment is as healthy as possible.

"We're also proud of the fact that all our players are local players. We don't recruit from outside London," O'Neill said.

Guaranteeing that this organization will be more than a one-hit wonder.


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