London Knights: Back in time — the Memorial Cup wait

Co Captains Mitch Marner and Christian Dvorak of the London Knights hoist the Memorial Cup at the 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup in Red Deer, Alberta on Sunday May 29, 2016. Photo by Terry Wilson / CHL Images. Terry Wilson / CHL Images

Strangely, the Knights won both of their titles on the exact same day: May 29. Their third appearance in a Memorial Cup final was on May 27 in Shawinigan, Que.

This week, the ongoing series, London Knights: Back in time, will focus on stories from before, during and after those games.

May 25 – The seven second delay

May 27 – Aftermath and wisdom in Shawinigan

May 28 – Adam Dennis gets the start

May 29 – Championship Day

Story continues below advertisement

Lake Street Dive is the band from Boston, Mass., that does not sing “More than a Feeling” or Peace of Mind.

Lake Street Dive is the band from Boston, Mass., that has a couple of lines in a bluesy tune that sums up what it’s like to get the bye at the Memorial Cup tournament.

“Baby, don’t leave me alone with my thoughts
I don’t wanna get caught in the current of my mind…
I don’t wanna get caught in the prison of the present time.”

The goal of every hockey club who either hosts or earns their way to the Memorial Cup tournament is to run the table in the round robin and advance straight to the final. It’s like advancing to Boardwalk after three rolls of the dice in Monopoly.

You guarantee yourself a 50-50 chance at winning it all. Unless you really enjoy flipping coins, you don’t see those kind of odds all that often.

But the bye is not exactly challenge-free.

Under a format that came into being in 2006 the team that manages to earn it ends up playing their final round-robin game on Tuesday or Wednesday and then they have to wait until Sunday to play for the championship.

Story continues below advertisement

Prior to 2006, the wait was less significant. The tournament often began on a Saturday and did not have a day off between the semi-final and the final.

Since then there has been at least a four and sometimes a five day layover for the team that finishes in first place. That’s a long time to wait to go to a movie. For teenage hockey players counting down all those minutes until the biggest game of their careers it is interminable.

You have all kinds of time to think and as often as you want to picture what it might be like to hold the Memorial Cup above your head, your mind doesn’t tend to take your thoughts that way.

Teams will do their best to provide distractions. The London Knights had their longest waits in 2012 and 2016. Waiting to play in Shawinigan, PQ the team arranged a trip to Quebec City and realized just how big the legend of Dale Hunter still was when they found Quebec Nordiques shirts with Hunter’s name and number 32 on the back for sale in stores.

Four years later to wile away some of the time they had to kill the Knights bus made the drive to Banff, Alta. and took a Gondola ride up the side of Sulpher Mountain to see the sights and visit with the mountain goats.

Story continues below advertisement

Both trips gave the players a mini reprieve and filled in a few hours but a big challenge still lingered because the hardest part during the time away from games is not all of the what-ifs. It’s finding a way to remain focussed and game-ready when you are the only team not playing.

It’s one of the reasons the Tampa Bay Lightning recently voted against the National Hockey League’s 24-team playoff format.

Lightning forward Alex Killorn told The Athletic that Tampa Bay players, “…felt it was unfair that the teams with a bye would not be as well prepared for a playoff series as the teams that had already basically played a playoff series to get into the playoffs.”

Story continues below advertisement

It can take years for rust to set in on a vehicle. It can happen much more quickly in an athlete.

And the change in format has made things slightly more challenging. In the 14 years since the change, five teams that earned the bye ultimately lost in the championship game.

The majority still go on to win, but in the 14 years prior to the change when the semi-final and final were played on consecutive days, only one team that played in the semi-final had ever won the Memorial Cup.

That happened in 1992 when Zac Boyer scored the game winner for the Kamloops Blazers with 14 seconds remaining in regulation time against the Soo Greyhounds.

In 2016 the Knights also had the fact that they were heading into one last game in their season on a 16-game winning streak.

It might sound like a positive, but it is next to impossible to pull that off in the playoffs and at the Memorial Cup. No one had done it before.

They had to be due for a loss. The pressure started to mount.

Story continues below advertisement

Knights associate general manager Rob Simpson remembers what was going through his mind.

“We were in a situation where everything had been going our way; we’d won 16 in a row and we had this break. I remember thinking that normally this is set up for failure. You have a team going into their final game and you can make history and then the other team comes back and wins and that’s the story,” Simpson said.

“And then I remember saying to myself, ‘Why not us? Why can’t we win 17 and go down as one of the best teams of all time?’”

Both times London went through the long wait for the final they wound up in overtime playing for a Memorial Cup championship.

In 2012, the dream went unrealized.

In 2016, as Simpson foretold, they made the dream come true.

Click to play video: 'Robertson returns to Petes lineup and helps the east defeat the west'
Robertson returns to Petes lineup and helps the east defeat the west

Sponsored content