London Knights: Back in time — May 14

LONDON, ONTARIO - DECEMBER 17: Bryan Rodney #74 of the London Knights takes a slap shot during the Ontario Hockey League game against the Sudbury Wolves at John Labatt Centre on December 17, 2004 in London, Ontario. The Wolves defeated the Knights 5-2, ending the Knights 31 game unbeaten streak. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images). Claus Andersen/Getty Images

This is part of an ongoing series in which we look back on amazing moments in London Knights history. Each day, we’ll bring you a new memory leading up to the anniversaries of the team’s Memorial Cup championships in 2005 and 2016.

“Last minute of play in the period.”

The announcement has been a ritual at hockey games for as long as anyone can remember.

It can go unnoticed in a blowout or it can heighten the tension in a tight game.

On May 14, 2005 at what was then called The John Labatt Centre (now Budweiser Gardens) the final “Last minute of play announcement” might have triggered a huge rush of excitement had the building not been shaking on its foundation already.

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READ MORE: London Knights: Back in time — May 13

In the 40th year of their franchise’s existence, fans of the London Knights felt very little suspense as they counted down the remaining minutes in Game 5 of the Ontario Hockey League championship series against the Ottawa 67’s.

Londoner Bryan Rodney had helped the Knights to a 4-1 lead through 40 minutes thanks to a pair of goals against his former team. Another London native, Mark Mancari, got one back for Ottawa to tighten the gap at 4-2 in period three but after Rob Schremp and Danny Fritsche scored goals within a five-minute span, the end of the game and the first-ever league championship for London was a foregone conclusion.

For fans who had followed the team for decades, the moment was surreal. It was like they couldn’t wait for the final countdown of that last minute.

With two minutes remaining and and no announcement or major event taking place on the ice, the entire crowd rose to their feet in a whoosh of energy that can only be described by those who were a part of it.

The team that had played 86 regular season and playoff games to that point and had gone 75-9-2; that began the year on a Canadian Hockey League record 31-game unbeaten streak; and that one day would be called the “Team of the Century” had its title.

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READ MORE: London Knights: Back in time — May 12

Strangely, it was a hard championship to appreciate because it wasn’t the end of the road for the Knights. As Memorial Cup hosts they were expected to stay on this miraculous run right to the end.

The dressing room was filled with a mix of elation and relief.

The Knights had been dogged by questions and a certain newspaper cartoon that wondered whether they could get to the Memorial Cup through the “front door.”

A Memorial Cup host team is given an automatic berth in the tournament. It doesn’t matter whether that host wins their league championship, loses out in the first round or misses the playoffs entirely, they will participate and have just as good a chance at winning major junior hockey’s biggest prize as any of the other three teams they go up against.

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It meant so much to the Knights players to earn their way there.

READ MORE: London Knights: Back in time — May 11 (Part 2)

The core of the team knew what it was like to come close. They had lost to the Guelph Storm the year before in seven games in a conference championship series that featured the two best teams in the Ontario Hockey League. After edging past London the Storm cruised through the finals and went on to represent the OHL at the Memorial Cup tournament in Kelowna, B.C.

The biggest surge of satisfaction on May 14 of 2005 may have been right inside the door to the London dressing room. That’s where the coaches room was.

Inside that room were Mark and Dale Hunter and the rest of their staff.

It had been five years since the Hunters had agreed to purchase the London franchise. They inherited a team whose roster was closer to that of an expansion club than a championship one.

READ MORE: London Knights: Back in time — May 11 (Part 1)

Back then they were playing out of a building that was badly in need of repair. When it rained, they mopped. When they had finished mopping, they turned their attention back to building the Knights into what they hoped could be an organization that could win consistently. Consistent success had always seemed to elude London.

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Even early on in their ownership, the Hunters looked ahead to a year when they felt they could take a run at hosting and perhaps winning the Memorial Cup. The Ontario Hockey League was set to host the tournament in 2005 and at that point the Knights were due to be playing out of a brand new building. It was a dream more than anything else, but Mark and Dale Hunter set a goal to see whether they could make it come true.

No one could have envisioned the ride that would reach its apex that year but that night allowed for the coaches, the staff, the players and the fans to appreciate the fruits of their dedication.

They were finally champions.

But the year wasn’t over yet.

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