The London connection

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:47 AM ET

If you were looking for a local connection during the National Hockey League playoffs, the same recognizable faces would be front and centre.

It was a rarity when former London Knight Brendan Shanahan of the Detroit Red Wings wasn't at the centre of Stanley Cup action, or another former Knight, Tim Taylor, then with the Wings and now the Tampa Bay Lightning, found himself on a Stanley Cup winner or contender.

Three years ago, former University of Western Ontario forward Steve Rucchin was a key player in the Anaheim Mighty Ducks' great run to the final. Now Rucchin toils for the New York Rangers.

After that, it was slim pickings when it came to local players in the spotlight.

How things change.

When the NHL playoffs begin tonight, many of the teams chasing the Stanley Cup will do so with more players than ever with London-area connections.

These guys aren't just filling a spot on the roster. Most of them will have to play well if their teams want to do well.

St. Thomas's Joe Thornton has given the San Jose Sharks an air of legitimacy. He won the NHL scoring title and may well earn the league's most valuable player award.

Thornton made Jonathan Cheechoo a 56-goal scorer.

The Sharks were languishing near the bottom of the Western Conference with eight wins and 12 losses before Thornton came over from Boston in the trade. After the Bruins' largesse, the Sharks finished the season with 44 wins.

"Who wouldn't want Joe Thornton?" asked cousin Scott, a Sharks teammate, after the trade. The Bruins might well have been the only team.

Scott Thornton, from London, has forged a pretty good NHL career and will get to share the limelight with teammate Joe. Scott is a solid two-way player who has operated outside the headlines, but has always done his job.

If you're looking for someone to really cheer for, look at Andy McDonald. The Anaheim Mighty Ducks forward has emerged as the best player no one knows. McDonald is from Strathroy.

During the last four months, he was second only to Joe Thornton in scoring among centres. He finished the season tied for 20th in scoring in the NHL with 34 goals and 51 assists.

If you don't know much about him, don't feel badly. No one does. McDonald is the underdog to cheer for. He played junior B hockey in Strathroy before going to Colgate college in Hamilton, N.Y.

Most people thought he was too small to play, so he went undrafted. He was signed by the Mighty Ducks, but couldn't participate in their run to the Stanley Cup final in 2003. He suffered a concussion that was so severe, he couldn't do much for a year.

"It wasn't that I was dizzy, but the lights affected me and the noise," McDonald told a Toronto newspaper.

"I had trouble tracking and focusing."

McDonald was worried his career was over before it had really started. But he recovered in a big way. Some have tagged him and Thornton as the two best players in the NHL during the last month.

McDonald and Teemu Selanne have given the Ducks a formidable offensive duo.

Chances are, the Ducks also will use former Knight Corey Perry a little more, since these playoffs promise to be more open offensively.

The other local player who has had a breakthrough year is Red Wing Jason Williams.

Williams, from London, is entering his sixth NHL season and he's finally getting some time on special teams and is guaranteed a regular shift. His 21 goals in a lineup with the likes of Robert Lang, Shanahan, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and the like, is impressive.

Then there's former Knight Chris Kelly with the Ottawa Senators and Brian Campbell of Strathroy with the Buffalo Sabres and Rucchin and . . .

You get the picture.

Rocking the channels, plowing through the coverage of NHL playoff hockey on TSN, CBC or NBC will make for a lot of pleasurable viewing thanks to a bigger local connection than ever before.


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