Knights open at No. 3

RYAN PYETTE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:07 AM ET

At five-foot-six, Daniel Erlich is once again the smallest London Knight.

But he figures to be living large in his second OHL season -- playing in front of massive crowds, fulfilling huge expectations and chasing his dream of skating in the big time.

The Knights begin the 2008-09 campaign next week considerably hyped and ranked third in the Canadian Hockey League's top 10 poll -- behind the loaded OHL Western Conference favourite Windsor Spitfires and the defending Memorial Cup champion Spokane Chiefs of the WHL and one spot ahead of this year's Cup host, Rimouski of the Quebec league.

"The goal is to win it all this year," said Erlich, a 17-year-old Thornhill native. "Last year ended way too early in the first round (against Guelph). We know this is a big season for us. We have a lot of good players and a team capable of living up to expectations."

Fellow forward Nazem Kadri, the 17-year-old Londoner acquired from Kitchener in the offseason to complete the Steve Mason trade, is tabbed as a potential top-10 pick in the next NHL draft. But don't forget his other pro-hungry mates like Erlich.

"There's going to be an Erlich in the mix somewhere, too," he said, jokingly referring to himself in the third person. "I came here because I wanted to show everyone I deserve to be drafted by an NHL team. Look at Justin Azevedo (Kitchener standout and West Lorne native picked by Los Angeles after winning the CHL player of the year) -- a guy like that, it's an inspiration for me because he's not much taller than I am.

"I'll play whatever role the coaches give me, but I'd love to do well enough to crack the top two lines and get some power play."

Erlich has the passion for the game. His rookie season had been written off because of a concussion, but he made it back to face the Storm in the playoffs and made an impact.

"The doctors said I was done, but I healed better than expected and I kept myself in good shape in case there was a chance to play," he said. "Getting into the playoffs was huge for me. It doesn't get any better -- you see OHL hockey at its best and then you know what to expect."

Two concussions in, Erlich doesn't plan on changing his scrappy style.

"The smallest guys are usually the most physical out there because they have the most to prove. I don't have size on my side, but there are other things you can do. I play a lot on emotion -- I love the crowd, I don't tune it out at all. I love to hear them cheer and I feel like it makes me better."

He also vowed to be stronger on the puck this year. He worked out in his hometown along with Knights first-round draft pick Christian Thomas.

Both got an eyeful on how a Stanley Cup champ prepares for battle.

"I've known Christian's dad Steve (Stumpy Thomas) for a while now and we got to work out with (Detroit Red Wings forward) Kris Draper this summer," Erlich said. "He's in tremendous shape. He doesn't look older at all and he was incredible motivation. As the young guy, you don't want to be shown up by the old guy."

Protecting players like Kadri, Erlich and Chris Mac-Kinnon is a priority. It will be even more of an issue if power forward Akim Aliu, assigned to the Chicago Blackhawks' camp remarkably early, has played his last game with the Knights.

London general manager Mark Hunter has called Western Hockey League contacts to find out what kind of physical presence might be available.

"That's just me -- I'm always looking around to see if there's anyone who can help the team," he said. "London fans like to watch skilled players, so we try to get as many as we can . . . (but) you don't want other teams taking liberties."

KNIGHTWATCH

Tonight: vs. Plymouth, 7:30 p.m. at John Labatt Centre

Tomorrow: vs. Plymouth, 7 p.m. at Strathroy's Gemini Sportsplex. Advance tickets available tonight at the JLC. Cost $15, also includes Strathroy Rockets-Sarnia Legionnaires Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League game at 3:30 p.m.


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