Dylan Hunter pulled on his London Knights jersey for a record 275th time last night with a belly full of Angelo's penne and a big smile on his face.
The 20-year-old London captain, whose first shift against the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds at the John Labatt Centre made him the Knights' all-time leader in games played, surpassing Joel Scherban, left the ice with a pretty good grin. He didn't record a point but his Knights got goals from some of the team's secondary scorers in a 4-1 victory, their sixth straight.
A.J. Perry, Josh Beaulieu on a short-handed effort, Sergei Kostitsyn and Kris Belan scored for the Knights, who have relied heavily on top guns David Bolland and Rob Schremp for goals this year.
But the game spotlight belonged to Hunter, who admits he wasn't always a perfect pillar of confidence and maturity in the OHL. He clearly remembers the first time he pulled on a Knights jersey and, like every bewildered kid, wondered what he got himself into here.
That was back on Sept. 16, 2001 -- five days after terrorists attacked the United States -- when London beat the Sarnia Sting 6-4 in what would be the final full regular season at the London Ice House.
"Before the first game, (Corey Perry) and I were sitting beside each other at the Ice House and because it was so small and everything was so close, you could hear how loud the crowd was from inside the dressing room,'' he said. "We were like 'Omigod.' Plus, we were playing Sarnia so we weren't sure what to expect because we heard the stories of what it was like when the teams played. It was going to be a battle. There would be some fights (five, as it turned out). The heart was pumping. I was pretty nervous.''
He survived just fine, overcame some rough patches early in his OHL days and developed into a defining character on the London junior hockey stage.
To this day, he still plays under a massive microscope with his father Dale behind the Knights bench for all but two months of his tenure with the team.
But when he skates away after five years with the Knights at the end of this season, he will depart as one of the top 10 point-getters in team history and, more importantly, as a winner.
"We've talked about this with the guys -- these last three years here could be the best we ever spend in hockey,'' Hunter said. "Not many teams get the chance to win like we have here or to play in a place like London. The city means so much to me. It's where I've grown up, and the Knights have been a big part of my life for a long time.
"It's crazy here. We go for lunch and get recognized. I know there's Leaf Nation in Toronto and all that -- but this, we feel, is still the best place to play in North America.''
After working hard to get himself into shape and become a major contributor, Hunter has earned the respect of Knights fans. When he recorded his 300th career point last year, there was a mighty roar the intended target didn't get to enjoy.
"They announced it when I was on a two-on-one,'' he said with a laugh. "I thought the roar was because we had a four-on-one. But I appreciate it. It's great to have the fans on your side.''
Hunter has been involved in a lot of great team moments. He scored the first goal in the first game played at the JLC. He helped the team win its first Memorial Cup title and never got enough credit for the job he did checking against Sidney Crosby's line in the tournament.
But of course, his favourite Knights moments aren't the ones that happened on the ice.
"The biggest and best part is the friends you make over the years,'' he said. "There's been a lot of guys coming through here. This summer, I saw (former teammate) Chris Bain for the first time in a year-and-a-half. I saw (ex-Knight) Dan Buccella, who I hadn't seen forever.
"You get together and talk to all these guys and it's a lot of fun. You joke with them and say, 'Remember when you did this that time? That was pretty stupid.' ''
Hunter laughs like an old fella retelling his favourite story. He jokes that he's an old man -- a guy who started his OHL career when current Knights rookie Corey Syvret was just 11 years old.
"I don't get too nervous. There's a game to play and you just approach it the way you have every other game,'' he said. "You have a job to do and you do it the best you can.''
KNIGHTS 4, 'HOUNDS 1
London goals: A.J. Perry, Josh Beaulieu, Sergei Kostitsyn, Kris Belan
Soo goal: Brendan MacLean
Next: London heads to Owen Sound to take on the Attack tonight at 7:30 p.m.