Teammate, mentor, friend and adversary

RYAN PYETTE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:32 AM ET

Robbie Ftorek still has the photograph he knows Dale Hunter wouldn't want anyone in London to see.

It was taken at Ftorek's house in 1980, Hunter's rookie NHL season with the Quebec Nordiques.

In the shot, a raw-boned Hunter, the Petrolia farm boy, and Sarnia native Jamie Hislop are in their suits and ties ready to go the rink -- "He had a big collar on, looked like the ones Don Cherry wears," quipped Ftorek, the former Nordiques captain -- and sitting in a tiny tent set up for Robbie's kids.

"And my daughter Lucie is serving them tea," Ftorek said with a wide grin. "We made a copy, got Hunts to autograph them. I have one and Lucie has one at her home too."

Twenty-nine years ago, it wasn't uncommon for established NHLers to take in and billet younger players just starting out in pro hockey.

"That's just the way it was," Ftorek said. "In Quebec with the architecture of the houses at the time, they were built either way too big or not big enough. Even with our kids, we had too much room. So we had Dale, Jamie and (Londoner) Reg Thomas live with us until they got settled.

"It's tough for the young guys. You went there and it was a different language, another culture. You want them to feel comfortable. You don't want to stick them in some hotel by themselves. That's why we did it and that's the way I think it should be."

It sheds an interesting light on this week.

Hunter is the head coach of the London Knights. Ftorek is his OHL playoff counterpart with the Erie Otters.

The Knights are up 2-0 in the best-of-seven quarterfinal series, which is in Pennsylvania for Games 3 and 4 tomorrow and Thursday.

So far, Hunter has complained Ftorek's players have been taught to turn their backs from hits and accused the Otters of targeting John Tavares.

Ftorek didn't want to discuss London's Zac Rinaldo and his hit from behind on Erie star Ryan O'Reilly. But Otters GM Sherry Bassin did, calling it a dirty play.

Dale's brother Mark, the Knights GM, told Bassin to keep quiet.

And these guys are all old-time friends through hockey.

Dale Hunter has a soft spot for Ftorek and his family. He also understands his competitiveness.

"I know his wife Wendy and his kids well," he said. "Robbie's son Sam was just a little boy when I lived there. I see he's still playing pro (with the Central league's Amarillo Gorillas).

"After the game, Robbie and I will go out, but during it, I'm doing my damnedest to beat him and he's trying to do the same."

"I'm not going out with Hunts this week," Ftorek said with a laugh.

Hunter owns the Knights. He is able to dictate his schedule.

The 57-year-old Ftorek, eight and a half years Hunter's senior, is a life-long hockey man. It's in his blood. His mother went into labour with him at the Boston Garden during a Bruins game.

He played everywhere and has coached almost everywhere else, including in the NHL with Los Angeles, New Jersey and Boston. His home base is New Hampshire but each fall, the Ftoreks go to where hockey calls him.

He still helps pack and unload the Otters bus. He instills in his players the same sense of team he tried to provide to Hunter and the boys in Quebec.

Brian Shaw of St. Thomas looked after rookie Greg McKegg this year. Erie captain Zack Torquato flashed a look of pride when told Slovak goalie Jaroslav Janus provided a spot-on, animated interview in English. They had lived together, so Torquato was partly responsible for helping Janus adjust.

"Mario Lemieux taking Sidney Crosby into his home (in Pittsburgh), I love that stuff," Ftorek said. "What are you going to talk about when you go home? Hockey. On the way to the rink? Hockey. The kid gets to hear what Mario is thinking, gets the right perspective.

"And those are the memories that stay with you. People ask you about this guy's 50th goal or the time you scored in this rink. That's not what I remember. I remember Dale Hunter living at my house and interacting with my kids."

He recalls, 30 years ago, former Phoenix Roadrunners teammate Bob Liddington needing a late flurry to score 20 goals in a season and activate a contract bonus.

"He wanted the $3,000 so he could buy a fishing boat and he ended up getting it in the last game of the season," Ftorek said. "We celebrated that one. We weren't a playoff team so that was a big thing for us.

"And in high school (where he captained Needham, Mass.), we were up 10-0 in the last game of the year and one of our guys scored his first goal in three years. We all went off the bench, we weren't that kind of team (to show up opponents), and I told our coach, 'It's OK. It's his first one.'

"Those are the things I won't forget."

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Knights vs. Otters

Series: London leads best-of-seven OHL Western Conference quarterfinal 2-0

Game 3: Tomorrow, 7 p.m. in Erie

Game 4: Thursday, 7 p.m. in Erie. Both games are on Rogers TV.


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