Hunters start push for repeat

JIM CRESSMAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 1:36 PM ET

At the beginning of this season, when the experts made their predictions -- and pegged the London Knights for the middle of the pack -- they should have consulted the one true expert on the Knights, general manager Mark Hunter.

Many people were satisfied when a 40-year wait ended for the Knights last season with their first Ontario Hockey League and Memorial Cup championships.

But Mark Hunter is never satisfied, he's always looking to make improvements, always looking to be the best.

There was a small sentence -- five words to be exact -- deep into a trade story this week when the Knights obtained defenceman Matt Pelech from the Sarnia Sting.

"We are going for it," Hunter said.

"It" being another league championship and another shot at the big prize, the Memorial Cup.

The 2006 tournament is in Moncton, N.B., with the Quebec league's Wildcats already in as host team.

Under Mark and head coach Dale Hunter, the Knights are looking to become the first team to win back-to-back Cups since the Kamloops Blazers in 1994 and '95

"You wait to see what direction the team is going and I don't miss too many games," Mark Hunter said last night as the Knights recorded their Western Conference-leading 23rd victory against the Sudbury Wolves at the John Labatt Centre.

"The guys are working their tails off to be successful and it would be a disappointment from myself and Dale if we didn't do our job to try to win and get to Moncton," Hunter said.

"That's our responsibility and we feel these guys can do it."

Hunter admitted this team is "better than we thought it would be, and when you get in the position where you only have so many chances to try to win, not necessarily win, but trying to win, when's the next time you're going to have guys like David Bolland, Rob Schremp, Dylan Hunter and Adam Dennis all on one team?

"That's the biggest problem I had with the teams I had in Sarnia (as coach and GM of the Sting). 'OK, I've got the good forwards, but the bad D.' Or, 'I've got good D, bad forwards.' You have to put them all together at the same time."

The Knights also have been lucky.

"We got certain players back that we didn't figure on (Dennis and Dylan Hunter), and Sergei Kostitsyn has been better than we thought (leading OHL rookie scoring). This is the first time we've had a European who's played like this. And our foot soldiers have gotten better, too, the Josh Beaulieus and the Trevor Kells and the Robbie Drummonds.

"Everything kind of fell into place and our ace in the hole is our coaching. To think of ideas to be proactive instead of just keeping the same -- like using two forwards on the penalty kill and five forwards on the power play. They're very proactive on what they're doing and looking for ways to win hockey games."

Two NHL scouts at last night's game like the Knights' chances of repeating.

"They're better than Moncton," said one scout. "But the Quebec league will find a way to stack all the good players on one team by the end of the year and Moncton will be the typical host team and load up at the trade deadline.

"I hate to admit it, but Dale is a terrific power-play coach and I guess maybe we didn't realize how good the Knights were last year. David Bolland now is getting a ton of ice time. Last year he got a lot, but he's come far. And Robbie Schremp is a terrific player, especially on the power play.

"I really like the way Dale runs his bench and he finds a way to get a lot of ice time for his eight or nine key guys. The way Dale coaches is the way guys coached 20 years ago. They played their five best guys and had smaller rosters, but the kids will bounce back and if they're good enough to play 30 minutes, why not play them?"

The scout was quick to add this team is not as deep as the team that dismantled the record books and will be in trouble if key players are hit with injuries.

Mark Hunter is aware of that. "We still need a couple more additions to put us where we think we'll be in a position to be one of the top two teams or three teams. I'm always looking."

And winning.


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