Knights nurturing young McRae

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:40 AM ET

There's more to this junior hockey stuff than just playing on the ice.

There are interviews, pictures, public appearances, school. When all that's done, you have to worry about scoring goals, learning how to play the game and figuring out how to survive a tough 68-game schedule while fulfilling the fans' expectations.

In London, those expectations take legs of their own after three highly successful seasons. Fans assume no matter how many players graduate, how many players have been traded, co-owners Mark and Dale Hunter will somehow find a way to make this not just a competitive team, but a threat to win an OHL championship.

The latest injection of young talent had the ice all to themselves before practice. Pat Kane, Sam Gagner and Philip McRae are standing in front of the net, getting their pictures taken for the front page of the season-opening program.

All three had enough talent to be high first-round draft picks, but only McRae was selected in the first round, last year. A player with the talent to go in the top five, he didn't go until No. 20 because London was the only place he would play.

The other two appeared committed to school but were selected in later rounds because the Knights believed they could be persuaded to eventually show up and play here.

Now the Knights have 16-year-old McRae, 17-year-old Gagner and 18-year-old Kane. All carry the burden of tremendous expectations.

On Friday, in an exhibition against the trio combined for nine points, most on the power play.

"It was fun to finally get one, get the pressure off my back," said McRae, who scored two goals. "It takes a while to get to know each other."

McRae is the baby of the group. Getting him was a coup for the Knights. His dad, Basil, is a former Knight and now a co-owner. Young McRae has goal-scoring hands, a perfect complement to Kane and Gagner on the power play. Both his older teammates can pass the puck and McRae can find the opening.

"I wanted to play in London," McRae said. "But you do feel a little bit of pressure, especially as a first-round draft choice. You want to play well and put up a few points. The points aren't as important as playing well, but you do need to put up some points."

The normal growing process with the Knights would have young players getting a gradual introduction to the OHL, especially a 16-year-old.

But these guys, including McRae, are going to get the revved up version. Coach Dale Hunter said they won't play together on a regular line. "But they'll see a lot of (power-play) time," Hunter said.

"You don't want to put too much pressure on the young kid. But he's been one of the top players in his age group and he's been playing in the U.S. national development program, playing against men who are 19-20, so he's gotten a taste of what it's like."

McRae is gifted offensively. He'll have to learn how to play a good defensive game as well. It's something Dale Hunter demands. But it's going to take a delicate balancing act with a player so young and not yet physically mature.

"He's a centre, so he has to (play in his own zone)," Hunter said. "But he's an offensive player, so you've got to be careful because you don't want him using up all his energy."

"He's got to use this more than this," continued Hunter, pointing to his head, then his muscled arm.

With so many Knights at pro camps, the young players are getting lots of ice time.

Several Knights have taken part in rookie tournaments.

Steve Mason and Robbie Drummond played for Columbus; Trevor Kell with St. Louis and David Jarram with Detroit in Michigan.

David Meckler was with Los Angeles and Adam Perry with Anaheim in California. And Sergei Kostitsyn played for Montreal in Toronto.

All should be back for the final preseason game Saturday against Mississauga at the John Labatt Centre -- where great expectations and the young players expected to fulfil them will be waiting.


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