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Hunter puts players on NHL path with London

Tavares, Marner, Kadri among 19 coach has sent from OHL to first round of Draft

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

LONDON, Ontario -- Dale Hunter looks at the London Knights practicing and tries to project who will be the next John Tavares, the next Nazem Kadri, the next Patrick Kane, the next Rick Nash.

London begins its Ontario Hockey League season against Windsor on Friday. It will be the latest chapter in the quest of Hunter, the longtime Knights coach, to prepare these players for what will await them in the NHL, should they make it that far.

"There is a lot of satisfaction in trying to get these guys ready for the next step," Hunter said this week. "And when they get there and you see them playing in the NHL, you have a sense of pride that you helped them in their journey."

Such was the case when three of Hunter's former players -- Tavares, Kadri and Mitchell Marner -- played for the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Ottawa Senators in the Kraft Hockeyville Canada game Tuesday in Lucan, a town of 4,500 located 17 miles north of London. Tavares (two goals, one assist) and Marner (one goal, two assists) each had three points in a 4-1 win.

Tavares, Kadri and Marner are examples of the assembly line of budding NHL talent the Knights have produced since Hunter, his brother Mark Hunter, and former NHL player Basil McRae purchased the team in 2000. Few have done it better when it comes to serving as pipeline to the NHL.

Under Dale Hunter, there have been 19 Knights selected in the first found of the NHL Draft, including Matthew Tkachuk (No. 6, 2016, Calgary Flames), Marner (No. 4, 2015, Toronto), Bo Horvat (No. 9, 2013, Vancouver Canucks), Max Domi (No. 12, 2013, Arizona Coyotes), Olli Maatta (No. 22, 2012, Pittsburgh Penguins), Tavares (No. 1, 2009, New York Islanders), Kadri (No. 7, 2009, Toronto), Kane (No. 1, 2007, Chicago Blackhawks), Sam Gagner (No. 6, 2007, Edmonton Oilers), Corey Perry (No. 28, 2003 Anaheim Ducks) and Nash (No. 1, 2002, Columbus Blue Jackets).

What is it about Hunter's coaching that makes players so NHL-ready?

"He's very hard on his top players to make you better and prepare you for pro hockey and what the challenges are at the next level," Tavares said. "It creates a lot of growth at a crucial time when you are approaching the next step to pro hockey. For me, he was really great at challenging me and giving me the opportunity to have success and become a better player."

Kadri said Hunter helps young players grow up on and off the ice.

"He treats you like a man," Kadri said. "You're still a kid, and he lets you mature at your own level. I think that preparation, making that jump from the OHL to the NHL, makes the transition smoother.

"He's an exceptional coach and a great mentor."

Hunter has an OHL record of 731-296-21-66. The 58-year-old has coached the Knights to eight division titles and two Memorial Cup championships (2005, 2016). He won 700 games faster than any coach in OHL history, doing it in 1,055 games. Brian Kilrea (1,193) and Bert Templeton (907) are the only coaches with more OHL wins.

But it's the way Hunter has achieved those numbers that has caught the attention of hockey people -- including Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, who sat in the stands to watch the Knights practice Monday.

"What Mike saw was that a lot of the drills Mike was using, Dale was using," Knights general manager Mark Hunter said. "It just kind of coincides that a lot of the stuff Dale is using, an elite coach like Mike is using."

If anyone knows the similarities in coaching styles between Babcock and Dale Hunter, it's Mark. He was assistant GM of the Maple Leafs from 2014 to 2018 before returning to the Knights when Toronto opted to promote Kyle Dubas to GM instead of him.

"Mike does a great job and so does Dale," Mark Hunter said.

Dale's influence runs deeper than his on-ice teaching. From lessons in nutrition to warning players about the dangers of tardiness, no stone is left unturned.

"You want them to be pros so you treat them like pros," Dale Hunter said. "You make them accountable. If it's an 11 o'clock meeting it's an 11 o'clock meeting. When they go there, they know they have to be on time. I don't think [Mike] would be too happy if you're five minutes late for a meeting. So teaching them that time is important. Be on time for practice.

"Eating properly is important too. I mean, kids will be kids. We do have chocolate bars. I had it in my time too. But eating properly in general and acting responsible like a pro are important things for them to know."

Dale Hunter played in the NHL from 1980-99 with the Quebec Nordiques, Washington Capitals and Colorado Avalanche. He scored 1,020 points (323 points, 697 assists) and is second to Tiger Williams (3,971) in NHL history with 3,565 penalty minutes.

But these days, Hunter takes far more interest in the feats of the players he's coached than anything he accomplished on the ice. He often finds himself sitting at home flipping between NHL games to see how some of them are doing.

"I appreciate them," he said. "They laid it out all on the ice every night for the London Knights. They're character guys. Great skill but great character. They're a pleasure to coach. And every night, when I tune into the NHL package, I watch Kane play, I watch three of them (Tavares, Kadri, Marner) play in Toronto, which makes it easier, I watch Johnny Carlson, who won the Stanley Cup in Washington.

"Sometimes I look at them and find it remarkable how much their faces have changed. It's like, jeez, they're baby-faced when they come here and now look at them. They're seasoned. They're faces have changed so much."

Even baby-faced Marner?

"Well, maybe not seasoned for Mitch," Hunter said with a chuckle. "But he'll get there."

Just like many of the Hunter-coached players did before him.

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