Hunter brothers put London on the map big time

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 1:39 PM ET

They don't crave the limelight, but Mark and Dale Hunter always seem to land smack in the middle of it.

The co-owners of the London Knights and the team's general manager and coach, the brothers have sculpted a franchise that is among the elite in junior hockey.

As a result, the Hunters outdistance all other sports- related individuals or organizations in recognition, influence and marketability.

The Hunters purchased a damaged and flagging franchise in 2000. Few doubted the former National Hockey League players had the contacts and knowledge to turn the team around on the ice.

But winning would only go so far. How could they modernize everything else around the team?

The Hunters can thank the city for that. In 2002, the city opened the John Labatt Centre, a 9,100-seat entertainment complex.

The rest took care of itself.

The Knights became contenders, filling the JLC to capacity on a regular basis. Last season, the Hunters put together a team that shattered records and gained national attention. The season culminated with its first Memorial Cup victory, which ended a 40-year wait for the prize.

They picked a good year to do it. The National Hockey League didn't play because of the lockout and Sidney Crosby's Rimouski Oceanic was one of four teams that made it to the tournament.

The Knights brought the spotlight to London.

Who knows what this season holds? But the team is near the top of the standings again and tickets remain hard to come by as game after game is sold out. Knights games are broadcast on Rogers Television, Knights merchandise is popular apparel and players are active in the community.

If there's one thing that hasn't changed, it's the Hunters' desire for simplicity. They love the game. They love building a team. They would prefer the glare be a little less bright, but they are adjusting.

"We're just average Joes," said Mark Hunter. "This has grown. It's a big business, but it's still just hockey."

That's the expression brother Dale used, too.

"It's hockey, it's fun. It's fun to win and take the kids to the next level," he said.

There is a clear delineation of duties. Dale handles most of the on-ice activities and Mark handles the business and off-ice end of things.

Despite their success, the Hunters are still hometown boys a little more comfortable behind a tractor or a players' bench than at a podium.

"I'm getting better at public speaking," said Mark. "I'm not comfortable with it, but I get a lot of requests and I'm liking it a little better."

But like his players, Mark recognizes that when you're a big deal in the community, you have to give back -- whether it's in time, money or celebrity.

"That's the way we were raised," said Hunter. "We want to be involved in the community. We're involved in a lot of charities.

"Getting the kids out there is a conscious effort. We've had great kids going out to schools and promoting the team. As an organization, we want to be successful in the community."

As the Hunters sit atop the list of influential sports personalities, they admit they thought coming to London would be good -- but not this good.

"We knew this was a good hockey town because we came in here to play," said Dale Hunter. "You know when you're on the ice what the fans are like. But you can never know for sure the kind of team you have or that you'll get a great facility. It's been unbelievable."


Photos