Rags to riches, pumpkin to golden carriage, a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
Call it what you will but it comes out to the same thing. The London Knights’ transformation into one of Junior hockey's most prized franchises is nothing short of remarkable.
The Knights have fed a wave of hockey fanaticism with unparalleled success in the new millennium. It took 40 years for the Knights to win a Memorial Cup. But when they finally turned the trick in 2005, it was the exclamation point on a turnaround that has seen the Knights win the Ontario Hockey League regular-season title four times in succession, move into a building that virtually sells out for every game and develop players that have been the first pick overall in the National Hockey League draft twice in the last six years (Rick Nash in 2002 and Patrick Kane in 2007).
"We always felt that if we could put a winning team on the ice, we'd be successful," says Knights general manager Mark Hunter. "We knew the move downtown was the right move to make. But did we ever expect things would be like this? In all honestly, no we didn't."
Brothers Mark and Dale Hunter bought the London Knights in 2000. They bought a team that was playing in an antiquated building and had had limited success over the years – in 1995-96 they won only three games all year, losing 60.
But through good management and hockey skills, the Hunters began to build a strong franchise. In 2002 the city built the 9,090 seat John Labatt Centre in downtown London. The building and the hockey team became an instant attraction. During the 2005-06 season every game was sold out. It is a rarity to see a crowd of less than 9,000 watching the Knights play.
The Knights rewarded the fans with a string of phenomenal seasons, including the best season in Junior hockey history. The 2004-05 season began with the Knights running off a 31-game undefeated streak, the longest such streak from the start of a season in Junior hockey history. The Knights broke dozens of records that year, ending the season with a Memorial Cup win in their own building.
But they've become more than just a team that's been successful on the ice. The Knights have become an integral part of the community, raising money for charities. Auctions of signed sticks and sweaters raise thousands of dollars. In their Memorial Cup year, the Knights sent out between 2,000 and 3,000 signed items for charity auctions.
"One thing Dale and I wanted when we took over the hockey club, we wanted to make sure we were involved in the community," Hunter says. "We wanted people to like what we were doing."
John Winston, general manager of Tourism London, knows intimately the enormous impact the Knights have had on the city both in positive publicity and by putting money into the local economy.
"The reputation of the Knights exceeds my wildest imagination," Winston says. "It is such a hotbed for attendance it helps us in the bids for various other events. Because of what the Knights have done, the John Labatt Centre has become known throughout Canada."
In the end, it all comes down to success on the ice. Where so many other managers, coaches and owners have failed over the years, the Hunters have been successful. That's gratifying to Mark Hunter.
"Yes we're proud. But you know us, we're never satisfied."
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