LONDON, Ont. – Steve Spott had to laugh.
After years of competing against the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights while behind the bench for the Kitchener Rangers, the Toronto Marlies coach didn’t really need to be reminded of the Hunter family empire.
This weekend served as a refresher, as eight players with connections to the Knights were taking part in the rookie tournament hosted by the Toronto Maple Leafs that includes prospects from the Ottawa Senators, Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks.
“London’s done an incredible job developing their players and I think success allows those players to have the exposure to move on to programs like ours,” Spott said, who is preparing for his first season with the American Hockey League’s Marlies. “I think winning is a skill, I believe in that, and I think that coaches and organizations want players that know how to win.”
Dale Hunter, the Knights’ team president and head coach, and his brother Mark, the club’s vice-president and general manager, have led London to back-to-back OHL championships and trips to the Memorial Cup.
That certainly helps the stocks of players like centre Ryan Rupert, a sixth-round pick of the Maple Leafs in 2012, and Penguins defencemen Scott Harrington, a 2011 second rounder, and Olli Maatta, who was taken in the first round of 2012.
“I think if a scout’s looking at two players that they have ranked exactly the same in their books, it’s not going to hurt that they’re league champions and go to the Memorial Cup,” Harrington said. “I think that scouts want guys on their team that are proven winners and I think that the more teams you’re on that are successful, it just makes you more valuable.”
Proving value is something the Blackhawks’ Alex Broadhurst, a seventh rounder in 2011, and free-agents Matt Rupert and Kevin Raine, who are in rookie camp with the Leafs, can do in tournaments like this one. Rupert and Raine get the opportunity to show their skills to not just Toronto’s front office, but also those of Ottawa, Pittsburgh and Chicago.
Along with Maple Leafs prospect Greg McKegg, whose time with the Knights was brief, and the Penguins’ Greg McNeill, London players have already done plenty to earn the attention of NHL scouts. Almost two dozen Knights players are at rookie camps, evidence of the Hunters’ burgeoning brand.
“You watch an NHL game now and you seem to always see London alumni,” McKegg said. “I think it’s a credit to the Hunters and the way they build the team up.”
It’s no secret, as illustrated by the careers of players like Patrick Kane, Corey Perry and Rick Nash, that the Knights can produce NHL players. But continued success as a team has helped make players like Vancouver Canucks first-rounder Bo Horvat into highly sought-after prospects.
“It shows that the organization, it’s really professional,” Maatta said. “The goal is to make NHL players here, and that’s what the Hunters do.”
While there’s no guarantee that Knights alumni always turn out to be solid NHL players—see Robbie Schremp as a notable example—just getting the chance to be noticed and join pro organizations is a strong start for many of them.
And that starts in London.
“It’s the style of game, it’s the lifestyle,” Maatta said. “We play for the win. Every game is a big game for you, you can’t take days off, and you practice, you watch videos, you want to learn every day.”