The 2007-08 OHL regular season begins tonight and if it's anything like the past four, it will end next spring with the London Knights on top.
Barreling in on a half-decade of ice excellence, the Knights have turned the Hamilton Spectator Trophy awarded to the OHL regular-season champs into their personal property, made the 50-win season routine, populated the pros with their star players and created a ticket scarcity at an arena that boasts 9,090 patrons.
The club is owned and run by GM Mark Hunter and his older brother Dale, the team's seventh-year head coach. Naysayers long ago conceded the former NHL-playing siblings from Oil Springs know what they're doing.
"Sure, it's always exciting at this time of the year," Dale Hunter said. "It's the start of another hockey season and it's like putting a puzzle together. You never know how it's going to turn out or where everything will fit."
One thing's for certain -- London finds a way to replace its pieces thanks to the recruiting prowess of Mark Hunter. Told it was impossible last year to replace the offensive output of OHL scoring champ Rob Schremp, David Bolland and Dylan Hunter, Hunter brought in Pat Kane, Sam Gagner and convinced David Meckler to leave Yale University to fill the goal hole.
Kane scored 62 times and won the individual points title, Gagner racked up 118 points and Meckler produced a combined 53 goals in the regular season and playoffs.
Kane was the first player chosen in the NHL draft by Chicago and could stick, sixth-pick Gagner has been turning heads in Edmonton's training camp and Meckler signed to play for the Los Angeles Kings American Hockey League affiliate in Manchester.
Anticipating the trio might not be back, Mark Hunter inked hulking North American Hockey League scoring champ Pat Maroon from St. Louis, traded for big forward Akim Aliu and convinced slick scorer Tony Romano to leave Cornell University.
"We don't know what we're going to look like at the end and we're a work in progress with so many guys still away at NHL camps," said forward Justin Taylor. "But with Mark as the GM, you always know going into each season you're going to be surrounded with talented players."
It's an opportune time to have a good team with the Memorial Cup back in Ontario for the first time since 2005. That year, London and the Ottawa 67's took part with the Knights winning their first and only Canadian Hockey League title on home ice at the John Labatt Centre.
This time, Kitchener has drawn host duties and few doubt GM and head coach Peter DeBoer will turn the Rangers into a squad worthy of winning the title. However, three teams beaten by Kitchener in that bid process -- London, Oshawa, Sarnia -- are expected to be top-flight outfits and would love nothing better than to raise the Cup on the Rangers' ice.
The Generals boast phenom John Tavares, who turns 17 tomorrow and has a 72-goal season and a league MVP to his credit. The Sting highlight their lineup with strong-skating forward Steve Stamkos, already being discussed as the NHL's top pick in next June's NHL draft.
While the faces and names in the lineups change year-to-year, the figure behind the Ottawa bench rarely wavers. Brian Kilrea, the winningest coach in OHL history, returns for a 31st season with the 67's and the Killer has plenty of talent with which to work.
Londoner Logan Couture was San Jose's first pick in the draft and his linemate and fellow Sharks prospect Jamie McGinn, the 67's newly-minted captain, has the ability to post 50 goals.
"We should have one of the better teams in the league," Couture said this summer.
There have been some changes, including two address relocations. The former Mississauga IceDogs are now the Niagara IceDogs and will play in St. Catharines while the St. Michael's Majors have moved from downtown Toronto to the IceDogs' old haunts in Mississauga.
Pharmaceutical giant and Toronto native Eugene Melnyk, who owned both clubs last year, finally sold the IceDogs to Bill Burke and kept control of the Majors. He also owns the Ottawa Senators and brought in one of his AHL employees -- former St. Michael's coach Dave Cameron -- to coach the Majors again this year.
Much of the on-ice action will be played out in the camera's glare. Though not every one of the 20 teams has a television deal, there will be more games on TV than ever before with Rogers Television airing 306 in its various regions of the province.
There will be an unprecedented 58 Knights games on Rogers Cable 13.
Who will win in the end? Most pundits feel the defending OHL champ Plymouth Whalers and the surprising Eastern Conference-winning Sudbury Wolves will be hard-pressed to return to the final.
The Belleville Bulls and Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, who face the Saginaw Spirit in the opener tonight, are not to be taken lightly. The Knights, should never be overlooked.