For nearly 50 years the London Knights have been a standard-bearer in Ontario junior hockey, grooming a list of future greats that includes Darryl Sittler, Brendan Shanahan, Rick Nash, Corey Perry and Patrick Kane. But none of those NHL stars accomplished in London what the most recent graduating class did with the Knights.
Playing for coach Dale Hunter, the most recent group enjoyed a three-year run that few squads can match, winning back-to-back Ontario Hockey League championships in 2012 and 2013 and participating in three consecutive Memorial Cup tournaments. Now the players constituting the core of that team are ready to make their mark against each other in the NHL.
"Our core group has been very close the last three years," said center Max Domi, who will attempt to make the Arizona Coyotes roster this fall. "We always talk about one day playing against each other in the big leagues. But there's still a lot of work to do."
Max Domi (Getty Images) (Click image to enlarge)
A Coyotes 2013 first-round pick (No. 12), Domi led London in scoring each of the past two seasons. He got a taste of the NHL last season when he played in some preseason games, including one against the Vancouver Canucks
and their own 2013 first-round pick (No. 9), Knights teammate and good friend Bo Horvat
"Last year was the first stepping stone with the exhibition game against Bo," Domi said. "The whole warmup I remember looking across and just laughing the entire time. It's pretty cool. It was a pretty special moment for both of us."
Horvat has a similar recollection of that game.
"It was definitely really weird," he said. "Max and I couldn't stop laughing at each other."
If they continue in their progression they may have to get used to facing off in the NHL. In fact, there could be a few familiar faces from those dominant Knights teams arriving in the League soon.
London's captain last season, center Chris Tierney, is a 2012 second-round pick (No. 55) of the San Jose Sharks and right wing Josh Anderson is a 2012 fourth-round pick (No. 95) of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Twin forwards Matt and Ryan Rupert are veterans of the Toronto Maple Leafs' recent development camps and Ryan, Toronto's sixth-round pick in 2012 (No. 157), signed an entry-level contract with the Maple Leafs in April. Defenseman Nikita Zadorov, a 2013 first-round pick (No. 16) by the Buffalo Sabres was a key contributor the past two seasons, as was goaltender Anthony Stolarz, a 2012 second-round pick by the Philadelphia Flyers (No. 45).
"It was a really great time. It couldn't have been a better three years. It's three years I'll never forget," Horvat said. "We had a bond right from the beginning. We all hung out together. We were like brothers there. We pretty much did everything together. We had a really tight-knit group, everybody hung out with everybody. I thought that was a huge part of our success."
And those teams certainly enjoyed plenty of success.
London led the OHL in points in 2011-12 and 2012-13, winning the OHL championship in each season. They finished third in the OHL standings last season and lost in the second round of the playoffs to the Guelph Storm, who won the OHL title and advanced to the championship game of the Memorial Cup, which London hosted.
As the host, London earned an automatic bid to the tournament, allowing the group one final run together.
"It was a long three years," said Horvat, who played 244 OHL regular-season and playoff games, plus Memorial Cup games, the previous three seasons. "Not a lot of guys can say they went to three Memorial Cups in three years. I've had pretty short summers. It's been a long three years but it's been a good three years and a great junior career."
The group's OHL success is what their tenure in London will be remembered for. But their hockey development was fuelled by more than just wins, especially on a proud club that encourages current and former players to routinely rub elbows.
The 2005 Memorial Cup championship, which featured Perry, Dave Bolland and Brandon Prust, still casts a long shadow. And the players from that team are too happy to trade stories with the new class.
"I was talking to a bunch of guys from the '05 team that won the Memorial Cup. They're still all best buddies with the guys from their junior team and they've played in the NHL for however many years," Domi said. "Those are the first guys they call come summertime. I'm sure for us it won't be much different. I'm looking forward to that. It's friendships we'll have for a lifetime."
How deep those London Knights roots go may have been on full display last season when Bolland missed more than four months after surgery to repair a severed tendon in his left ankle. He spent part of his recovery time in London working at the arena; the team announced it will retire his No. 91 Knights jersey Oct. 15.
"[John] Tavares came out for a little bit. Guys like [Drew] Doughty and Perry were on the ice a couple of years ago," Tierney said. "It's been awesome to watch those guys and see what they do, learn from them, ask them questions."
After enjoying so many moments together as teammates, the group is poised to splinter off at the next level. They'll just have to learn to stop laughing when they see each other on the opposing team's bench.
"It would be pretty cool playing against each other night in and night out," Tierney said. "I've been with those guys for a couple of years now, went through a couple of long playoff runs, a couple of championships. Hopefully we can all make it one day. That would be awesome."