May 11 is celebrated as everything from Salvador Dali’s birthday to Root Canal Day.
That usually leaves the day feeling important for anyone who appreciates art and anyone who has dental work in their future, but tomorrow is also quite the day for fans of the London Knights.
In both 2012 and 2016, the Knights ended May 11 with the J. Ross Robertson Cup above their heads as Ontario Hockey League champions.
In 2012, a young and plucky London team turned a 2-1 series deficit against Saginaw into a six-game victory that catapulted them through Kitchener and into the finals against a talented and very veteran Niagara Ice Dogs club.
Niagara was led by Dougie Hamilton and the massive Jamie Oleksiak on defence. They had Andrew Agozzino and Ryan Strome up front and Mark Visentin in goal. Twelve players on the Niagara roster had been drafted by National Hockey League clubs.
Thirteen of the players playing for the Knights in that series would wind up as NHL draft picks but that time hadn’t arrived quite yet. Max Domi and Bo Horvat were both just 16 years old.
Anyone looking closely at the matchup realized that this should have been the IceDogs’ time. For London, it was a great opportunity to learn what it took to win. With a nucleus as young as theirs, they would get their chance to be champs eventually, but all in good time.
And the series started exactly that way.
The Knights forced overtime in Game 1 with a Seth Griffith goal in the third period and then lasted into double-overtime with the score stuck at 2-2.
That’s when Niagara raised things to another level. They fired six straight shots at the London net until Dougie Hamilton’s blast from the blue line got through and gave the IceDogs the win.
Hamilton celebrated with a somersault at centre ice of Budweiser Gardens and the tale seemed to be told.
London might have to be content with coming close.
But two days later brought a turning point in the series.
With Dale Hunter behind the bench of the Washington Capitals, Mark Hunter was acting as head coach of the Knights.
He held a video session before Game 2 at Niagara that had one key message in it. Hunter talked about Dougie Hamilton and how skilled he was. He told his players that Hamilton was a guy who wanted to make plays. When he was on the ice Hamilton was going to carry the puck into the offensive zone. He was the catalyst. Hunter needed his team to take away Hamilton’s time and space and prevent him from getting the engine of the IceDogs revved up.
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Hamilton had two points and was a minus-two for the rest of the series while Rupert, Rupert and Watson combined for nearly three points per game and gave Hamilton and most everyone else in black, red and white very little room to move at tiny Jack Gatecliff Arena in St. Catharines, Ont., and at Budweiser Gardens in London, where the series was ultimately decided.
May 11 brought the usual early nervousness that comes with knowing a title could be won that night.
The game sat scoreless well into the second period when Austin Watson scored to give the Knights a 1-0 lead. Watson had been part of the Windsor Spitfires Memorial Cup championship team and acted as an embodiment of what it took to be successful to his much younger teammates.
Early in the third period Vladislav Namestnikov slipped a silky pass to Griffith and he scored to settle the constricting pressure in the building for a few minutes.
IceDogs forward and future NHLer Tom Kuhnackl brought Niagara within a goal with just over 12 minutes remaining in regulation time but London refused to let down in what was a smothering performance. Niagara’s best chance in the final half of the final period was turned aside with a big thud as Michael Houser kicked out his right pad and knocked away a hard shot from the top of the right circle.
As time ticked down and more than 9,000 fans got to their feet, future Knights’ captain Scott Harrington cleared the puck from the London zone and kicked off a celebration that would take the Knights to Shawinigan, Que., and the 2012 Memorial Cup tournament.
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