Hunters could cure Leaf woes

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:01 AM ET

Amid the million or so solutions to the plight of the Toronto Maple Leaf comes one that illuminates all the dark corners of the team's dreary record.

It is simple.

Bring in the Hunter brothers and put them in charge.

Here are two teams going in opposite directions.

While the Leafs' free fall continues, the London Knights' ascendancy stands as a statistical monument as to how a hockey franchise ought to be run.

Against all odds, the Knights continue to find ways to win.

They responded to being turfed from their John Labatt Centre home by the Scott Tournament of Hearts women's curling championship with a perfect eight-game road record.

On a long, grinding road trip, they went into enemy barns to beat top teams such as Peterborough and Kitchener and hot teams such as Kingston.

Against all odds, the Knights are now poised to run up a third straight 50-win season, a junior hockey achievement of considerable note achieved only by the Kamloops Blazers 15 years ago.

And against all odds, London is in a strong position to win its third successive regular season conference crown.

But what is really against the odds is the fact this team has a legitimate chance to defend its Memorial Cup. Only seven other clubs in the 86-year history have done it.

A visitor from Calgary to the Hearts, a fellow who has followed junior hockey closely for almost 50 years, thought the Knights were the best junior squad he'd seen after watching them soar to the Memorial Cup final here, then dispose of the Rimouski Oceanic and Sidney Crosby with what almost was the perfect hockey performance.

"That was the best junior team I ever saw," former Calgary Herald columnist Larry Wood said.

"I got the feeling that team wouldn't have been embarrassed in the NHL."

Maybe. The people who lead the team certainly wouldn't be.

The compelling Knights story did not just happened by chance.

It happened because Mark and Dale Hunter possess genius at assembling, then leading, a hockey team.

It is a rare set of skills that could be applied to hockey at any level.

Yes, including the top level. After a combined 30-plus years as players in the NHL, the Hunters know how to win hockey games.

You might have wondered at the start of this season, which the defending national champions kicked off with four straight losses.

The return of Dylan Hunter, Rob Schremp, Adam Dennis and David Bolland turned that around -- but you had the sense the Hunters would have found a way to stop the bleeding anyway.

They have healthy egos, but transcending that is the desire to win, which explains why the operation is a sort of benevolent dictatorship.

The Hunters surrounded themselves with other hockey minds, from a pair of sharp assistant coaches in Jacques Beaulieu and Jeff Perry to a wide-ranging scouting network.

Everyone, including the scouts, has some say about potential recruits. Mark Hunter runs up 80,000 kilometres a year on his car to see virtually all of them with his own eyes.

It isn't just the drafting of players, it's the drafting of the right players. Each one of them must (a) have the character the franchise seeks and (b) suit a niche that needs to be filled.

It is scarcely any wonder the seamless Knights appeared to be from some higher league when they dispatched the Oceanic in that decisive 4-0 Memorial Cup final victory.

The Hunter work ethic and hockey smarts could be applied successfully to the Leafs, where it appears Pat Quinn -- an excellent coach -- has exceeded his coaching shelf life.

It won't happen, of course. Toronto Marlies AHL coach Paul Maurice would likely get the nod.

But there's no reason to think the things that have made the Hunters winners at this level would change much in a new set of dynamics.


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