Evil Empire or Well-Oiled Machine? Whatever your opinion of the London Knights is, the Memorial Cup hosts are in trouble and need a big win against rival Guelph just to stay in the tournament.
LONDON, ON - If the host London Knights bomb out of the Memorial Cup after bombing out in the second round of the Ontario League playoffs, you won't find a lot of sympathy outside of the Green and Gold's own fan base. There's even more intrigue in the fact the Guelph Storm could serve as executioners in both instances when the rivals meet tonight at Budweiser Gardens.
The Knights are the New York Yankees of the OHL and you can take that in two very different directions. They have usually been one of the best teams in the nation in recent years and have three league titles since brothers Dale and Mark Hunter took over full-time in 2002-03. During that span, the Knights have never had a losing record and produced NHLers such as Patrick Kane, Corey Perry and Sam Gagner.
Detractors grumble that the Knights always get their way and are favored by the OHL, with the Knights hosting the Memorial Cup two out of the past four times the OHL has had the tournament. Like Plymouth, Windsor and Kitchener, the Knights have been proficient at convincing players to join them instead of heading to college. Goalie and Philadelphia Flyers pick Anthony Stolarz even left the University of Nebraska-Omaha mid-season to join London last year.
Max Domi, a Phoenix Coyotes first-rounder, is an interesting case. Originally drafted by Kingston, Tie Domi's son was also hinting that he could go to the University of Michigan at the time, even though Frontenacs GM Doug Gilmour played in the NHL with his dad. Kingston eventually traded Domi's rights to London after receiving a high compensatory pick from the OHL because Domi hadn't signed. That pick became Sam Bennett, who may go first overall in the NHL draft this summer.
Meanwhile, Domi has played in three straight Memorial Cups and could very well crack the Coyotes' roster for 2014-15. He got a long look in training camp this season and brings a dynamic skill set up front that Phoenix lacks. So does he ever think about what might have been in Kingston?
“Ah, no," Domi said with a laugh. "Not at all, to be completely honest with you. Everything happens for a reason and I'm pretty pleased with how everything's worked out. I can definitely go back and thank Dougie now for that. I couldn't be happier to be a Knight.”
Even back in his minor midget days with the Don Mills Flyers in Toronto, it was clear Domi was special. And it's really no surprise he jumped at a chance to play for the Hunter brothers once given the chance.
“It's the winning attitude they have; they instill it in all the players," Domi said. "They find a way to win and to develop their players and that's what junior hockey is all about.”
That's the same reason right winger Christian Dvorak gave up his commitment to the University of Wisconsin this year. The Chicago-area product was highly touted in prospect circles, but decided on London for his NHL draft year.
“I thought London was the best play for me," Dvorak said. "The Hunters make you work hard and develop your skills. When you're on a winning team, you get seen more, so I definitely had to take that into consideration too.”
Fate conspired against Dvorak this year, as a knee injury robbed him of the second half of the campaign and the playoffs, though he's played in all of London's games at the Memorial Cup. But now the Knights are 0-2 and facing a Guelph team that knocked them out of the OHL playoffs in the second round. If London doesn't win tonight, they will be eliminated from the tourney and their dominance up top is already being threatened locally by division mates Guelph and Erie - the Otters will have phenom Connor McDavid back again next season, not to mention fellow 2015 prospects Dylan Strome and Travis Dermott.
In fact, success may be finally catching up to the Knights. They already lost Olli Maatta to the NHL's Penguins this year, while Buffalo's Nikita Zadorov will most likely be a Sabre next season. Domi could be gone, as could Vancouver first-rounder Bo Horvat and Montreal first-rounder Michael McCarron, a former Western Michigan commit who can join the American League as a teen because he was drafted from the U.S. National Team Development Program.
No doubt the Knights will reload again (they've always been able to convince Europeans to come over via the CHL Import Draft), but the arms race is hot in the Midwest Division.
If the Knights falter, their critics will crow. But in a business based on results, it's tough to argue with what London has accomplished in the past decade.