Promising Knights season starts now

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, FREE PRESS SPORTS COLUMNIST

, Last Updated: 6:51 AM ET

The London Knights officially open training camp today, but it's going to be a while before all the eligible pieces of the team expected to challenge for the Ontario Hockey League title will be on the same ice surface.

If that happens at all.

It's the bane, or blessing, of a successful OHL franchise. There's select teams to play for, special tournaments and National Hockey League camps to attend.

You never know who's going to make it back, or when.

About 65 players will attend camp at the John Labatt Centre. It begins today at 11 a.m. and runs through 4 p.m. with registration and fitness training the order of the day.

Tomorrow, scrimmages start at 8 a.m. and run 90 minutes each, two in the morning and two in the afternoon. On Thursday there are two scrimmages in the morning and a practice at 1 p.m., followed at 2:15 by the black and white scrimmage. Scrimmages are open to the public.

Pat Kane, the first pick in the 2007 NHL draft, headlines camp.

It will also be the first Knights camp for several big names: Tony Romano, ex of Cornell University; Nathan Martine, who came from the Niagara IceDogs in the Jordan Foreman trade; Patrick Maroon from St. Louis junior A and Akim Aliu, who came in a trade from Sudbury.

Missing for the first part will be Sam Gagner and goalie Steve Mason, who are with the Canadian team in the eight-game series against Russia.

When they get back, they'll head off to NHL camps along with a slew of other Knights, including Kane, Romano, Martine, Aliu, Maroon, Scott Aarssen, A.J. Perry, Matt Clarke, Kevin Montgomery and Justin Taylor.

This is not a new story for the Knights. The last three or four years they've seen a lot of players going to NHL camps. It's often a month or longer before everyone is back. It gives the players who remain a chance to catch the eye of the Knights coaching staff.

"There really isn't anything different with this camp," said coach Dale Hunter. "We have a lot, a lot of kids going to camps this year. It's more than other years.

"If you look at the chance, after the first weekend, all these kids are going to get a chance to play, power play, everything. Guys like Phil McRae, kids like that, will get a chance to play. Those that play well, will get more time when those guys do come back."

Then there's the question of whether Kane will come back. The last time this happened was when Rick Nash was scooped up by Columbus and he made the Blue Jackets. The Knights spent the first part of that season waiting for him to return.

The message this time is clear: Go about your business and don't worry about who is or isn't coming back.

"You have to prepare your season that (Kane) doesn't come back," said Hunter. "He's a year older than Rick was when he went. If Kane plays well, they'll keep him."

There were two things the Knights had to do after last year. They had to get a little bigger up front and a little better on the blue line.

Martine joins Aarssen, Clarke and Montgomery as 19-year-olds. They'll be older and, Hunter hopes, better.

With the addition of Aliu, Maroon and Cody Smith in the recent trade for Luke VanMoerkerke, they got bigger up front.

There's no questioning Aliu's terrific potential. How much Smith will contribute remains unclear, but Hunter was impressed with what he saw in Maroon and Romano.

"Both of them can really handle the puck," said Hunter. "Maroon is a big, big guy, but has great hands and he's come to camp in good shape. Romano has terrific hands as well, but is more of a darting, quicker skater."

This will be camp unlike any in recent years. Knights management has gone about doing major renovations. Pieces of this puzzle have come from all over, some of those pieces carry question marks about attitude while others carry questions about conditioning. It will be fascinating to see how mixture comes together.

Anyone who's ever participated in a chemistry class knows that putting together the right components can make for a smooth combination. Putting the wrong ones together might cause an explosion.


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