The ultimate quests for an Ontario Hockey League championship and a Memorial Cup title could not be conquered in 2019-20 due to the COVID-19 pandemic but the work of players and coaches was recognized by the OHL on Wednesday afternoon.
The league unveiled its All-Star and All-Rookie teams and the London Knights had five representatives spread throughout.
Knights rookie goalie Brett Brochu led the way after being named to the OHL 1st All-Rookie team.
London head coach Dale Hunter and Knights leading scorer Connor McMichael were named to the OHL 2nd All-Star team and defencemen Alec Regula and Ryan Merkley were named to the 3rd All-Star team.
When the regular season was stopped amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, the Knights found themselves on a 24-3 run dating back to Dec. 29. They ranked fourth in the league in goals for, second overall in goals against and second in league standings behind the Ottawa 67’s with a record of 45-15-1-1.
The 17-year-old goaltender from Tilbury, Ont., was a boulder rolling down a steep incline in 2019-2020. He started slowly and then gained momentum throughout the year until he was racing right with the most experienced and skilled netminders in the league.
Brochu was the owner of the best Goals Against Average in the OHL at 2.40 and he had the third-best save percentage at .919.
Brochu won the battle for London’s back-up goalie position in training camp and then started earning more and more starts based on how he was playing.
“He wants to be in the net, he doesn’t gloat and he wants to get the next win,” said London goaltending coach Daren Machesney. “I think that’s what sets him apart sometimes. He’s never satisfied.”
Overall, Brochu won 32 of the 42 games he played in, a year after making the jump from Junior C with the Dresden Jr. Kings.
The legendary head coach of the Knights hit two major milestones in 2019-20.
One was team-related and one individual.
Hunter guided London to a 40-win season for the fourteenth time in the past 20 years and had them on pace for 50. To put that in simple mathematical terms, in order to get to 40 victories a team has to win 60 per cent of the games they play. To get to 50 a team has to win at basically a 75 per cent clip.
Finding the kind of consistency exhibited by Dale Hunter teams is like finding pots of gold at the ends of rainbows.
Hunter, who became the fastest head coach to 800 victories, was also the fastest to marks like 500 and 600 wins and is closing the gap on the late Bert Templeton (907) and the league’s all-time leader, Brian Kilrea (1,193).
For Dale Hunter, number 800 wasn’t much different than number 796 or 535.
“You feel a little old to begin with,” he smiled.
Coach Hunter also led Team Canada to gold at the 2020 World Junior Hockey Championship in the Czech Republic.
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McMichael was a part of Team Canada. He scored an important third-period goal in the gold medal win over Team Russia but he saved some of his most magnificent magic for his Knights uniform.
McMichael led London offensively with 47 goals and 102 points in 52 games.
Those numbers had McMichael right on track to reach 50 goals in his third season in the OHL.
The Washington Capitals first-rounder is a nightmare for opposing goalies due to the fact that the puck can come off his stick at all kinds of shooting angles and he gets that shot away in a hurry.
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The Knights co-captain changed National Hockey League addresses in 2019-20 as his rights were traded from the Detroit Red Wings to the Chicago Blackhawks. Regula’s father was the Red Wings team dentist when he was growing up, so Alec spent all kinds of time around the team.
Regula continued to be a dominant defensive and offensive force on the London blue line.
He scored 27 goals and put up 60 points. Regula was a fixture on the Knights power play and was also a plus-39.
The West Bloomfield, Mich., native has signed an entry-level deal with Chicago and is likely bound for their organization when he takes the ice next.
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Merkley was acquired by London in late September and quickly acclimated to his new team by adding veteran savvy and propelling their power play to the upper echelon of the league.
The 19-year-old can bring fans out of their seats at any time but what he does on the man advantage could have him playing the game at the highest level for a long time.
“He’s unpredictable,” explains Knights teammate Liam Foudy.
“He’s one of the smartest guys on the ice so you never know where he’s going to go.”
“He doesn’t have the hardest shot but he doesn’t have to because he knows how to throw goalies off.”
Knights assistant coach Dylan Hunter feels he developed a greater appreciation for Merkley’s odd-man abilities after Merkley became a Knight in late September.
“Now that we have him here we realize that we may have been a little too hard on the guys who had to defend against him when he was in Guelph,” chuckles Hunter. “He does things that are just “Merk” things. Some players have abilities that you can’t teach and that’s kudos to him. You learn you just have to let him go so that he can do what he does best.”
Merkley had a 76-point shortened season in London and put what will likely be finishing touches on a career that saw him record 269 points in 248 games played.