May 16, 2014 (ISN) – Bo Horvat already has his own frozen-in-time major junior hockey moment.
He scored the buzzer-beating, third-period goal to win Game 7 of the OHL final against the Barrie Colts last spring at Budweiser Gardens. He’ll be telling his grandkids about it some day. That’s got to be the ultimate feeling, right?
Well, not quite. The London Knights forward has a final chapter to write before he joins the Vancouver Canucks. His eyes are fixed on the Canadian Hockey League’s top prize.
“Any player who goes to three Memorial Cups and to not win one, it’s not the greatest [legacy],” the 19-year-old from Rodney, Ont., said, “and it would stick in the back of my mind the rest of my life. You want to win at least one.”
The hunger remains.
Yes, the Knights are back, this time as MasterCard Memorial Cup hosts. Unlike the previous two trips, the Knights have qualified as hosts after a second-round playoff loss to the Guelph Storm.
This remodelled crew, still sprinkled with familiar faces — Horvat, up-and-coming Phoenix Coyote Max Domi, big Russian Buffalo Sabre-to-be Nikita Zadorov and the pesky Rupert twins Matt and Ryan — will take its third straight crack at MasterCard Memorial Cup magic.
This group has been fuelled since last fall by two overarching themes: the belief the rest of the OHL is sick and tired of them winning, and the unwillingness to accept becoming known as the puck version of the Super Bowl’s Buffalo Bills.
“We haven’t won a Memorial Cup and we’ve been there twice,” said Horvat, as if everyone needs another reminder. “To have that automatic berth, we want to win this time.”
The veteran core of this club already rates as special.
It’s an honour on its own to get to three Cups in a row.
London lost the final 2–1 in overtime to host Shawinigan in 2012. They were knocked out by the Portland Winterhawks in the semifinal, again 2–1, last year in Saskatoon.
These guys aren’t trying to live up to the impossible standards of the 2005 Knights, one of the best junior outfits of all time who rolled to a 4–0 victory over Sidney Crosby and the Rimouski Oceanic at home for the franchise’s unforgettable and only CHL title.
“We had an awesome team [in 2005],” London’s affable and experienced equipment manager Chris Maton said. “The past few years, it’s been a grind. The kids had to do the little things to win.”
This season has been more of an uphill climb than the rest. In 2012 and ’13, the Knights finished first overall in the OHL. They had 49 wins that first season and 50 last year.
This time, they won 49 again and finished as the fourth playoff seed in the conference, third in their own deadly Midwest Division behind league champ Guelph and the upstart Erie Otters, the two teams who met in the OHL’s Western Conference Final.
It was the first time three teams in the same division ended up with over 100 points.
The Knights joined the century club with a torrid finishing kick, winning 20 of their final 23 games. It rekindled memories of their attention-grabbing franchise record 24-game winning streak a year ago.
“It’s a heck of a run,” Horvat said. “It might not be 24–0 but it’s definitely up there. Not a lot of teams have gone [on a streak like that late in the season]. It shows a lot of character.”
The first five months of the schedule were basically a character-building exercise glued to a chemistry experiment.
London GM Mark Hunter had to hustle from the starting gate to replace big names who remained in the pros.
None was larger than Olli Maatta, the 19-year-old Finnish defenceman earmarked to be the Knights’ blueline anchor and team leader. The Pittsburgh Penguins had other plans — he made the big club out of training camp — and he ended up an Olympic bronze medallist as part of his country’s memorable effort in Sochi.
Mark Hunter acquired three fifth-year rearguards — Alex Basso from Sarnia, Brady Austin from Belleville and Zach Bell by way of North Bay. In a pinch, they also used versatile forward Brett Welychka there, too. Buffalo finally sent back Zadorov in November, providing a 6′ 5″ sigh of relief for London. He gave the Knights Maatta-like production at the back end and later helped soften the blow when Bell was lost for the post-season run when he broke his leg in the conference quarter-finals.
But there was never much time to become a true team. Even once they were finally in place, they were broken up by the World Juniors. Less than two weeks after that tournament ended, goalie Anthony Stolarz suffered a 55-stitch leg cut and missed a month and a half, forcing fellow veteran Jake Patterson to make 17 straight starts, including a shootout loss to Plymouth in an outdoor game at Comerica Park, the home of the Detroit Tigers.
When Stolarz was suspended for eight games during the first round of the playoffs for a one-handed hack to the head of Windsor’s Josh Ho-Sang, being thrust into the No. 1 role for Patterson was nothing new.
He, like all his mates, has been down that road before.
“You see a whole group grow as a team throughout the year and it’s pretty cool to watch,” leading scorer Max Domi said. “Your team can change a lot in a season with new people coming in, and the way guys handle those changes, it speaks volumes about what hockey’s all about, and for me, what the London Knights are all about. We embrace it. It’s part of why we’re so successful.”
Head coach Dale Hunter didn’t name a captain until late January, opting for San Jose second-rounder Chris Tierney, who went from three goals in his rookie season to 40 this year. Even though the team was under the scrutiny of a season-long Sportsnet documentary show aimed at their “Quest for the Cup,” Tierney could still keep it light.
“Every team’s different year to year,” Maton said. “Last year, we had Harry [two-time Canadian World Junior defenceman Scott Harrington] as captain, and he was a man playing with a lot of younger guys. Now, with Tierney as captain, he’s more of a jokester, not quite as serious as Harry was. It’s different all the time.”
But one thing isn’t — the Hunters’ influence.
They have the resources to build a constant winner, but they’re also searching for every possible microscopic edge. For example, Maton has brought a convection oven into the London dressing room. Its purpose is to help mould personalized shot-blocking inserts for players’ skates in a bid to reduce players’ injuries.
“When playoffs come around, it’s when the family comes together,” Maton said. “If you have a bunch of individuals, you’re not going anywhere. Two years ago, were we the best team? No, Niagara was, but we beat them.
“Last year, were we the best team? No, Plymouth was supposed to be the best, and we beat them. Are we the best team this year? Well, we’re not supposed to be but it’s unbelievable the way Dale and Mark [Hunter] bring the team together.”
The Knights come into this Cup with the necessary talent. They have four NHL first-rounders (Horvat, Domi, Zadorov and Montreal Canadiens’ prospect Michael McCarron) and 10 drafted players, including Gemel Smith, who was part of the Owen Sound Attack’s OHL-champion team in 2011 — the last club to win the league title before the Knights’ run.
They are here with absolutely none of the deer-in-headlights look of a first-time Cup team.
“We’ve been through this before,” Toronto Maple Leafs’ pick Ryan Rupert said. “We have all our experience from the past two years.”
Now they will see what all that is worth.
They aim to accomplish the same thing Knights predecessors Corey Perry, Danny Syvret, Rob Schremp, Brandon Prust and friends did nine years ago on this same ice.
Just in their own way.
Aaron Bell/OHL Images