Saginaw coach-GM learns from Hunters

JIM CRESSMAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 1:39 PM ET

Maybe next time Mark Hunter won't be quite so helpful.

The London Knights co-owner and general manager enjoys talking about the OHL and sharing his passion for hockey.

Saginaw Spirit coach-GM Bob Mancini has bent Hunter's ear many times since Mancini came to the league in July 2004 to take over a team that had won 16 games in its second season after moving from North Bay.

There was nowhere for the Spirit to go but up -- and less than two years later, that's just where they are.

The Spirit lost 4-2 to the Knights last night but continue to lead the West Division while holding down second place in the Western Conference, eight points behind London.

With 18 wins in their first 28 games, the Spirit already have matched last season, the club's previous high since relocating from the Ontario northland.

"There is a lot of satisfaction just because we know we are heading in the right direction, but I've been telling these guys all year we haven't won anything and we're certainly not where we want to be yet," Mancini said.

"As soon as we stop and say 'OK, we're good now,' we take out our ability to ever become great. I don't know if we have the ability to become great this year, but that's certainly what we want to be. We want to become a very great franchise and maybe we're just taking the first very small step right now."

Sound familiar? The Knights were coming off a 22-win season when Mark Hunter and his brother, Dale, bought the franchise in May 2000.

Twenty-two wins became 26, then back to 24, then 31, then 53, before culminating in 59 last season and the OHL and Memorial Cup titles, the first in the club's 40-year history.

"I do have a lot of respect for what they have done here and I do have a lot of respect for Mark Hunter, because he has opened up," said Mancini, who added the coaching role two months into last season.

"He's been very candid. This is a tough business and he's helped me out just by having conversations with me. We've had a lot of conversations about the London team back before they built this and how they built this and where they were. I think he knows he's given me a lot of good advice I'm using."

Mancini, 47, was born in Brooklyn. The family moved to Long Island when he was two and it was there, at age six, he got his first taste -- literally -- of hockey.

"I grew up at a great time on Long Island with the Long Island Ducks (of the old Eastern league), with John Brophy playing, and of course that was the heyday of the Islanders.

"I saw my first hockey game in 1964 and my parents tell the story there was no glass in those days and we had seats close to the boards. Someone had come and stopped and the spray came over the boards and got me in the face and I was hooked.

"It was hockey, hockey, hockey for the rest of my life and I can still remember my father's face when I was 16, telling him I was quitting baseball to concentrate on hockey."

Mancini played in college and then pro in Italy before joining Lake Superior State University in 1983 as an assistant coach. He's also served as an NHL scout with the Nordiques and Oilers and player director for the U.S. national team development program.

Sport is full of people coming full circle and Mancini finds no exception with the Spirit. Bus driver Jean-Marie Nicol played with the Ducks. Nicol settled in Saginaw after playing for the International league's Gears in the '70s.

"I told (Spirit owner) Dick Garber when I interviewed for the job that I had waited my whole life for this job," said Mancini. "Every experience I had ever had seemed to lead me to this job.

"Whether I was going to be able to do it, was another story."

That story is being written.


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