No defence against OHL raids

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:09 AM ET

Build it and they will leave.

It's a harsh reality of building something attractive. In the case of the movie Field of Dreams, it was a baseball diamond in the middle of nowhere that had great spiritual meaning. People wanted to come see it.

In the case of the London Nationals hockey team, it's a case of building a good team with good players. Some of those players are so good they've been poached not by anything spiritual but something that may be considered a higher power.

The Nationals have been knocking on the door of a Western Conference title in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League for years. This was the year the knocking was to stop and the door was coming down.

The Nationals have been building for a championship run. They lead the Western Conference with a 23-3-1 record. They've carefully built their team over the summer and as needed, have added pieces to complete the picture.

That picture is fuzzier today. The London Knights have signed Nationals' Stephen Sanza, a dangerous, swift skating forward. Fifth in league scoring with 24 goals and 24 assists, he is part of the top line in the league with Adam McKee and Shaun Furlong.

A week earlier, the Knights also signed Nats defenceman Reid McNeill.

The loss of Sanza, 19, is what's really going to hurt. He is an explosive player.

The Knights are in an awkward position. They've had a rash of injuries and are looking to fill the holes. They are aware of the Nationals' championship hope and recognize the impact taking Sanza will have on that dream. The Knights are sensitive to their public image. They don't want to be viewed as the Jabba the Hutt of the local hockey world. But they want to win and winning trumps everything else, including what the Nationals want.

Will Sanza lead the Knights to a championship? Unlikely, but he won't hurt them.

"Of course it was a difficult decision," Knights general manager Mark Hunter said. "The kid was playing well in junior B . . . He didn't have much on the table when it came to scholarships and we believe he can play on the top three lines on our team. You try to be fair to people who want to move up to another level and this is Junior A and another level for this young man to show his stuff."

It's happened to the Knights enough times . . . Rick Nash, Sam Gagner, Pat Kane, Michael Del Zotto, John Carlson.

From ownership on down, the Nationals are frosted. The Nationals are affiliated with the Knights.

To obtain Sanza's release, the Knights had to cough up cash. How much no one is saying but Hunter did say it was more than the $1,500 fee that accompanies off-season change of teams.

Nationals' general manager Barry Martinelli understands the desire of someone like Sanza to play at another level.

A run for the Sutherland Cup is nice but does it measure up to the bountiful fruits being offered by the Knights -- an education package, playing in front of 9,000 fans every night and show casing himself at a higher level?

"I was upset and disappointed," Martinelli said. "(Sanza) is such a major part of our team. He may be the most dynamic forward in the league . . . We've been building this, adding pieces of the puzzle as we go along. I was pretty happy with the group of kids we have.

"We've worked so hard to get to this point. But at the end of the day, I said to Stephen, what do you want to do? It was a difficult decision for him."

Martinelli hesitated when asked if the discussion turned heated when he found out what the Knights wanted.

"Well, er, aah, yes. No one should be surprised if teams are after your best players. One of the reasons we develop players is to move them to the next level. You should never be shocked by that. I guess if Stephen was an 18-year-old, it would make a little more sense to me.

"But at the end of the day, I'm not the one making that decision. If this is what he wants . . . "

morris.dallacosta@sunmedia.ca


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