Knights' U.S. connections pay dividends

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:34 AM ET

The Windsor Spitfires, who roll into London tonight, have flirted with playing both the Canadian and U.S. national anthems at home games because of their border city roots.

The London Knights may want to break out the Star-Spangled Banner on a regular basis if only to trumpet the contributions of their U.S. players so far this season.

The Knights realize they probably would've been roasted by the Spits in Windsor on Thanksgiving Monday if not for two goals from David Meckler, a Chicago native who joined the Knights from Yale University, and two more from Buffalo's Pat Kane, another Yankee Doodle Dandy, who owns one of the more silky sets of hands in the OHL.

Meckler loved coming through at the tail end of a hockey-filled weekend because that's what drew him north of the border in the first place.

"I felt great playing three games in four days -- that's what it's all about here," the 19-year-old said. "I'm a rink rat and I love being at the arena every day. Practice is good for working on different things, but I love to play games. I'm not wired like a football player. I don't like to play one game and then wait another week for the next one."

Two years ago, the Knights won the Memorial Cup while boasting the all-American forward unit of Dan Fritsche, Rob Schremp and Drew Larman. Yesterday, Meckler and Kane practised on a line with leading scorer Sam Gagner, who sees himself as Canadian as maple syrup but played last year for Sioux City of the United States Hockey League.

Both of Gagner's sisters have U.S. citizenship and he would have been a Minnesota native too except his mother had been at the family cottage in Grand Bend at the time of his arrival.

"Two weeks later, we would've been back in Minnesota where my dad (Dave) was playing," Gagner said. "I've been through both the Canadian and American (hockey system) and there's just a totally different way of thinking. When I told them I was going to the OHL and giving up the University of Wisconsin, everyone looked at me like I was crazy because the scholarship is what everyone's shooting for there.

"It was the same as when I left Toronto to play in the USHL. Everyone didn't understand why I would go to the States when I could play in the OHL."

Since Gagner is lighting up the OHL, it's easy to conclude the USHL must be an underrated circuit. Some observers have noted the better teams of that league could knock off the average-to-poor clubs in the OHL.

"The difference is they don't have the Bobby Ryans and the John Tavareses there," Gagner said. "It's a lot of younger guys because by the time they get to 19, they're in college."

London GM Mark Hunter, who has watched enough hockey in the U.S. to have an opinion on the matter, feels the OHL can offer top-notch coaching, more games and, incredibly, a favourable travel schedule. Hunter said the Knights have less than a week's worth of overnight road trips this season while the USHL has its share of 10-hour bus trips for long-distance games, which Gagner said don't really affect school much because they're on the weekends.

"They have good players, it's a good league, but sometimes it's kids skating 100 miles an hour and they really don't know what position they're supposed to be in," Hunter said. "With Meckler, a 19-year-old grown man feels like he wants to play more games. Twenty-six games a year in university isn't enough. Signing a letter, going to school, that doesn't mean a player's gone forever. You have to keep your eye on what's going on and see who's available. You're trying to put the best product on the ice no matter where they come from."

GAME GLANCE

Tonight: London vs. Windsor, 7:30 p.m. at the John Labatt Centre

Stars and stripes

(Knights who have made an offensive impact and played south of the border last year)

Pat Kane: Six games, five goals, 13 points; last year: played for U.S. under-18 team

David Meckler: Six games, six goals, eight points; last year: played for Yale University

Sam Gagner: Six games, three goals, 19 points; last year: played for Sioux City in United States Hockey League


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