As the London Knights put the finishing touches on their preparation for the tournament that will decide the Canadian Hockey League champion, they learned that Dale Hunter was coming home.
Hunter, who owns the OHL-champion Knights, informed the Washington Capitals on Monday that he wouldn't be back as head coach of the NHL club, saying going back home to London was "the right thing to do."
While he won't be returning to as Knights head coach, which is where he started the season before being hired by the Capitals in November, Hunter will be with the team when the tournament starts in Shawinigan, Que., on Friday.
Hunter's brother Mark, who succeeded him as London's coach, will remain behind the bench during the tournament.
"It's another set of eyes watching the games now," Knights goalie Michael Houser, the OHL's outstanding player of the year, said Tuesday. "We're excited to have Dale back, but Mark is still the head coach, and it will be good to have Dale there in Shawinigan for support."
The Knights won the OHL title on Friday, defeating the Niagara IceDogs 2-1 to claim the best-of-seven series 4-1.
They'll open the Memorial Cup on Saturday against the defending champion Saint John Sea Dogs. The four-team tournament begins Friday with the host Shawinigan Cataractes facing the WHL-champion Edmonton Oil Kings.
Houser says the Knights are a confident group.
"These are some of the most important hockey games some of us will ever play," he said. "We believed in ourselves in the locker-room that we had the type of team that could make some noise at playoff time."
Mark Hunter describes the Knights' lineup as a cohesive mix of veterans and youth, a change from the last time the team won the Memorial Cup in 2005.
"We have a more mixture of younger guys, who have all jelled quicker than we thought they would," said Hunter. "One thing we've done all year is play four lines and six on defence, and we have the depth in the organization to fill key holes if anyone ever gets hurt. One thing I felt we have done is not wear out our team."
London's roster includes leading scorer Seth Griffith, Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Vladislav Namestnikov, Boston Bruins prospect Jared Knight, and a solid blue-line led by Montreal first-rounder Jarred Tinordi.
They boosted that lineup at the trade deadline with the addition of Maple Leafs prospect Greg McKegg of nearby St. Thomas, Ont., defenceman Brett Cook and winger Austin Watson, who won a Memorial Cup in 2009 with the Windsor Spitfires. He went on to become the playoff MVP with 10 goals and seven assists.
Younger players like Max Domi, Bo Horvat, Chris Tierney, Josh Anderson, Olli Maatta and twin forwards Ryan and Matt Rupert have also played a role.
Ryan Rupert scored four goals in the OHL final, all on the road in St. Catharines. Maatta, a defenceman, is ranked eighth for next month's NHL draft and was tied for the team lead in playoff points with 23, including six goals.
The Sea Dogs will be a tough first opponent for the Knights after they swept Rimouski in the QMJHL final, capping the series with a lopsided 8-0 win. They finished the season with 50 wins.
After opening against Saint John, the Knights will face off against the host Cataractes on Sunday before completing their portion of the round robin on Tuesday against Edmonton.Suggest a correction