Mark Hunter is leaving the junior-hockey empire he helped build with the London Knights to join an NHL empire with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Hunter was named the Maple Leafs' director of player personnel on Tuesday. He will oversee the team's pro and amateur scouting and player-evaluation departments.
For the past 14 years, the Petrolia, Ont., native co-owned the Knights of the Ontario Hockey League with brother Dale and served as vice-president and general manager. Mark Hunter briefly filled in as coach when his brother joined the Washington Capitals for the majority of the 2011-12 season.
"I felt it was a great opportunity for me to hopefully show my skills," Hunter said on a conference call from London. "It was a difficult call to leave something like (London). But at the end of the day guys, it's something that I wanted to do and it was a great opportunity for myself."
The Knights won three OHL titles and a MasterCard Memorial Cup during the Hunter regime and turned out stars like Patrick Kane, John Tavares and Corey Perry. In the process, Mark earned a reputation as one of the sharper hockey minds at the junior level.
Within the organization, Hunter said he would consider an NHL job if it came along. One person with the Knights said this was overdue to happen, and another called it one of the best decisions the Leafs could have made.
Hunter, a veteran of 628 games as a player, coached the AHL's St. John's Maple Leafs in 1996-97 and also spent some time behind the bench of the OHL's Sarnia Sting before buying the Knights. His true passion is in management.
"Evaluating the talent of players, the progression of them getting better, is so important to where they end up at the end of the day," Hunter said.
Hunter, 51, said he met last week with Leafs president Brendan Shanahan (himself a Knights star before Dale and Mark took over) and general manager Dave Nonis to talk about hockey philosophy. Another meeting led to a job offer, which Hunter was glad to take in part because all four of his children are now out of the house.
"It's a good time in my life right now, it's just the wife and myself — I can be gone more, I can do more things, I can travel more," Hunter said. "I can be more involved with the Leafs."
Hunter said he'll spend the next 10 days helping new Knights GM Basil McRae get up to speed. McRae, a co-owner along with the Hunters, previously served as a pro scout for the Columbus Blue Jackets and the St. Louis Blues.
After he helps McRae get going, Hunter said "it's going to be 100 per cent with the Leafs."
The hiring of Hunter is Shanahan's latest stamp on the Leafs' organization. Since taking over in April, he fired assistant general managers Dave Poulin and Claude Loiselle, assistant coaches Dave Cronin, Scott Gordon and Dave Farrish and hired assistant GM Kyle Dubas, assistant to the GM Brandon Pridham and now Hunter.
In the process, Toronto now has a hockey research and development department and a newfound focus on analytics. Hunter brings some experience there from the Knights.
"We always did analyze our own players," Hunter said. "One of the things we always look at all the time is how many scoring chances per minute on the ice. That's a big component for us. Yes, you want guys putting pucks in the net, you want some guys that have natural (ability), that don't need as many chances to score, but if you're not creating chances for somebody else or getting the chances yourself."
As far as player evaluation, Hunter said he prefers skill over size.
"It's nice to have a skilled guy that's big and strong, but they're harder to find," he said. "If you can do both, I think you have something special. We had doubters on Pat Kane. If you guys would've seen him in minor midget, he was a little mouse, and now he's bloomed into one of the best players in the National Hockey League.
"You really have to evaluate where they're going to go and how much they're driven and how good their skills are. That's the responsibility of the scouting staff of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and hopefully I can help that part out."
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