LONDON?S HOCKEY CONNECTION
This hockey-rich region continues to develop and produce hockey talent with assembly-line-like regularity
Today SewerBall reaches out to London, Ontario, a city located in the heart of a region that has been buzzing like a beehive with hockey since before the times when knights put on skates but instead used to wear actual armor, slay dragons, and rescue damsels in distress. Today?s knights suit up at Bud Gardens to square off against opposing Ontario Hockey League teams. Not all roads to the NHL lead through southwestern Ontario of course, but over the years many sure have. London has been just one such breeding ground. Many players passed through here en route to eventual stardom in bigger, far-away cities. Interestingly, the place that spawned hockey?s greatest player ever, Wayne Gretzky, is just a cool 90-kilometer drive from the Forest City. That?s right, Brantford, Ontario is what Liverpool is to pop music; both places have unleashed greatness on the world and have reaped exalted status ever since. Brantfordites rarely shy away from the folk stories they have to share about the Gretzkys and like to revel in the mythos.
Southwestern Ontario proudly lays claim to being in the epicenter of the hockey universe in terms of sheer talent rendered. Eat your heart out Manitoba. Sorry Wisconsin. Keep trying Alberta. The climate here is ideally suited for kids to break out the steel blades and chase a puck up and down an icy pad. Sure, indoor rinks insulate the specimen from the frigid outdoor surroundings, but having set foot in many minor hockey arenas, believe me, I can attest that a roof over your head on a cold January morning offers little solace when you still have to cope with -9?C temperatures ?indoors.? The ice is crisp though and to endure these climes you have to have ice in your veins because the colder and more miserable it is, the more a young player?s commitment is tested. This may also explain why San Diego is not exactly a hotbed for launching hockey careers.
Many players who have ascended through the system and gone on to stellar careers in the pros have done so through the junior developmental ranks via the OHL?s London Knights. This list is rather long and equally impressive. Many of these players aren?t Londoners by birth, but honed their skills here and risen through the ranks to become certified NHLers. Even as the awful Knights teams of the mid-eighties floundered, they managed to serve a greater purpose by developing the talents of a young Brendan Shanahan and giving him the reps he needed to eventually become worthy of hockey?s Hall of Fame.
The throbbing potential of Patrick Kane was realized with the London Knights in the one season he needed to prove he was ready for the show, when he tallied 62 goals and an insane 145 points. Before Kane, Rick Nash proved he belong too with his play for the Knights before moving on and continuing his torrid scoring in the bigs. Corey Perry and Dave Bolland brought London its only Memorial Cup in 2005 and became Stanley Cup winners as well; Perry won hockey?s holy grail in 2007 with the Ducks and Bolland won it in 2010 and 2013 with the Blackhawks. Kane wishes he could have delivered a Mem Cup to the Knights in his only OHL season but has two Stanley Cup rings just the same.
Eric Lindros hails from London. Out of the gate, his had the makings of a career destined for the ages before it was cut short by an unfortunate string of concussions. In the mid-nineties, however, there were no hockey players in the world more dominant than Lindros. He won a Hart Trophy in 1995, as did fellow London-native Joe Thornton(2006) and former Knight Corey Perry(2011).
Byron?s Rob Ramage had a notable career in the NHL, having captained both the Blues and Maple Leafs, but his post-career drunk driving episode tarnished his name and flat-lined his legacy for good when he killed his friend Keith Magnuson in the crash. Following his sad demise, Ramage briefly returned to the Knights, behind the bench this time as an assistant coach for one season when Dale Hunter took the head coaching job in Washington. Another solid defenseman from the eighties who, like Ramage, played more than a thousand games in the NHL is London?s own Brad Marsh, who helped take the Flyers to a couple of Stanley Cup Finals appearances that decade.
Before my time there was of course the irreplaceable Darryl Sittler, who will forever be a legend in Leafs Nation and who shined with the Knights in his ramp-up to the pro stage. A pure goal scorer and as likable a guy as will ever draw breath, Sittler will own the hearts of millions of the Leaf faithful and hockey fans alike . . . unless he were to pull a Ramage.
John Tavares? connection to London is a bit more tenuous than that of all the others mentioned above, but he nonetheless finished off his junior career with the Knights after being traded from Oshawa, where he played most of his junior hockey and really began to first turn heads. That said, in 24 games as a Knight, Tavares lit the lamp an impressive 32 times. As of this writing, he?s just one point behind Sidney Crosby for the league lead and a top Hart candidate.
Finally, a shout-out is in order to former goalie and my tennis partner, Jeff Hackett. Hackett finished his career with 26 shutouts and starred for the San Jose Sharks in their inaugural franchise game in 1991. His nephew Matt is a budding goalie with the Sabres.
Look, home is where the heart is. I live in London ? it?s one of the Canada?s great cities(for that reason). So three cheers for London?s rich hockey tradition, the place that is also known for being the headquarters of the little blog that could, SewerBall ? at least that?s what I tell myself.