Spits, Knights rivalry has it all

RYAN PYETTE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:57 AM ET

Some hockey rivalries are fuelled by geography.

Others gain their heat from long and bitter history.

The best ones have both.

That's the backdrop heading into tomorrow's game between the Windsor Spitfires and London Knights at the John Labatt Centre.

It's not just the top two teams in the OHL facing off against each other.

Or 10 guys who shared a dressing room for last night's OHL All-Star Classic in Windsor ramping it up for the most intense game of the season to-date.

It's more than the No. 1 team in the Canadian Hockey League facing the seventh-ranked club in its 9,000-seat rink for a game being televised on Rogers Sportsnet.

The Spits and Knights have long been the measuring stick for one another.

For almost 30 years, they shared the same division. They came into the league instantly opposed, fought during playoff series, battled over postseason berths and celebrated milestones achieved against the other team with a little more gusto.

When the Knights were reassigned to the OHL's Midwest Division for 2002, the Spits stayed in the West. Though a scheduling format change called for teams in each Western Conference division to play four times against each other, London and Windsor stuck with six.

No one wanted to see the electricity wilt.

There had been a lot of back-and-forth between the clubs. Former head coach Wayne Maxner, for instance, went from behind the Windsor bench to London, then back to the Spits again in his career.

Shortly after Mark and Dale Hunter purchased the Knights, the team rocketed ahead of its old foe. London became the cornerstone franchise in the league, posted back-to-back 50-win seasons and won the Memorial Cup in its new building.

Then Windsor scalped the blueprint.

The Spits were sold to a group of hockey men that included head coach Bob Boughner and GM Warren Rychel, who both knew and played the game in the NHL.

In their greener days, they leaned on the Hunters' knowledge, watched how they did things and learned from it.

Now they're trying to beat them at it.

There was no better battle of front-office one-upmanship than the leadup to the league's Jan. 9 trade deadline.

London needed some toughness and wanted Owen Sound's big and strong forward Lane MacDermid.

But Windsor got there first and made the deal with the Attack. That, and a big trade raiding the Kitchener Rangers of their remaining veteran Memorial Cup talent, propelled an already deep and solid Spits team above everybody else.

The Knights responded by landing sniper John Tavares and defenceman Michael Del Zotto, Oshawa's best players, to re-enter contender status. There's lots of built-up angst.

The Spits have a new rink, an air of excitement and a record comparable the powerhouse Knights team of 2004-05.

They have beaten London three times in three tries this season.

This is supposed to be their time. But London remains the only team that can match the Spits all-star for all-star.

Scouts want to see how Tavares and Nazem Kadri handle Windsor's strength. They'll also watch what Taylor Hall -- the projected No. 1 NHL pick in 2010 -- and defenceman Ryan Ellis can manage against these Knights.

In the OHL, there will be a lot of glory in just getting to the Memorial Cup this year.

AROUND THE O

Steve Yzerman and Adam Graves served as honourary captains for last night's All-Star Classic. Yzerman's No. 19 has been hanging in the rafters of Joe Louis Arena for the last two years. Graves, the former Spitfire who owns a piece of the Oshawa Generals, had his No. 9 retired by the New York Rangers in a Madison Square Garden ceremony on Tuesday . . . There's only one player in the league's top 10 scoring with a realistic shot at 100 points and 100 penalty minutes, Sarnia Sting forward Justin DiBenedetto, who has 68 points and 71 PIMs. His previous career highs are 93 points and 61 PIMs last year . . . Cody Hodgson's league-best 20-game point streak just serves to remind how hot a goal scorer retired NHLer Mike Ricci was in his junior days. Twenty-one years ago, Ricci scored at least one goal in 19 straight games for the Peterborough Petes -- still a league record . . . Every OHL team has at least 10 wins now. Doug Gilmour's Kingston Frontenacs were the last to join the group, but they got there on an Ethan Werek winner with four seconds left against London last Friday.


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