London Knights: Back in time — May 18

The Rouyn-Noranda Huskies' Peter Abbandonato, left, shoots on London Knights goalie Tyler Parsons during first-period CHL Memorial Cup hockey action in Red Deer, Alta., Tuesday, May 24, 2016. Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS

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.

On May 18, 2016, the London Knights packed up their gear and prepared to head to the London International Airport. For the fourth time in five seasons, they were going to compete for the Memorial Cup.

A three-year run from 2012 to 2014 had given the Knights long looks at just about every kind of finish a team can have, with the exception of the ultimate ending that brings you major junior hockey’s biggest prize.

Those three tournaments felt a little like standing in an ice cream shop and finally finding your favourite flavour only to be told that the shop is closed when you arrive at the cash.

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READ MORE: London Knights: Back in time — May 14

London had come within an eyelash in Shawinigan, Que., in 2012, losing in overtime in the final to the host Cataractes in front of an insanely loud and inspired crowd.

The year after that, the Knights made it to the semi-final in Saskatoon but lost a tight 2-1 game to the Portland Winter Hawks. Inside their home rink in London, Ont., in 2014, all that could go wrong seemed to and the Knights were the first team to be eliminated.

It was now two years later and London was back with a nearly entirely new crew. Co-captains Mitch Marner and Christian Dvorak and rugged forward C.J. Yakimowicz were the only players to play in a Memorial Cup tournament who were still on the roster. Their roles in their only appearance in 2014 were far smaller then, compared to what they would be as the Knights team bus rolled onto the tarmac followed once again by honking fans and well-wishers.

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In front of them sat the aircraft ready to fly them to Red Deer, Alta. It was not the usual Air Canada charter that the Canadian Hockey League typically used. This plane said Flair Air.

The players loaded their luggage onto the conveyor belt, walked up the steps into the aircraft and prepared for a takeoff that came minutes later.

The flight from London to Red Deer is roughly four hours and somewhere over Manitoba or Saskatchewan the story of Flair Air and why the teams heading to that year’s tournament were using it began to travel through the cabin.

Flair Air (now Flair Airlines) had experience with flights to remote areas like Fort McMurray, Alta., where it would bring oil workers or construction workers to their job sites. Word on the flight was that they specialized in landing larger planes on shorter runways like the one at the Red Deer Regional Airport.

The human mind can run a little overboard when given an unknown but the landing was completely smooth and totally unremarkable.

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

The players disembarked from the plane into 30 C sunshine that felt more like a vacation destination than the site of a whole lot of high-level hockey.

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The Knights arrived on a 13-game winning streak. They had not lost since April Fool’s Day and that was in overtime against the Owen Sound Attack.

London had celebrated an Ontario Hockey League championship and yet the mood surrounding the team was as far from a party atmosphere as an annual physical.

The Knights had come to test themselves against the rest of the best of the best.

READ MORE: Around the OHL — Talking goalies with Jacob Ingham and Brett Brochu

The host Red Deer Rebels had been able to grind their way to the Western Hockey League’s Eastern Conference finals against the Brand Wheat Kings and although they had bowed out in five games, three of those losses had been by two goals or fewer.

The Wheat Kings, led by future Vegas Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon, had gone on to defeat Seattle in the WHL final and boasted a powerful offence, a smothering defence and a former WHL first-round draft pick in Jordan Papirny in goal.

Both Brandon and Red Deer were big and skilled but the biggest challenge London faced looked as though it was coming from Rouyn-Noranda. The QMJHL’s Huskies went 54-9-3-2, spent nearly all season atop the CHL rankings and breezed through three rounds of their playoff schedule before being battle-tested against Shawinigan in a six-game series in the final.

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READ MORE: London Knights: Back in time — May 17

The road to a title would be tough.

London was focused. The Knights came in determined to capture what they had not been able to in their previous three appearances.

The decision was made not to wear the green uniforms they had used in Shawinigan, Saskatoon and London. They would wear their black third uniforms as often as possible just to try to change things up. Just to try to win the franchise’s second Memorial Cup.

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