The London Knights are one of just two Canadian Hockey League teams that have won the Memorial Cup more than once since 1996. The Knights captured their first title in 2005. They won again in 2016. The Windsor Spitfires won back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010, and again when they hosted the tournament in 2017.
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, focuses on stories from before, during and after those games.
“Maybe this wasn’t going to be our day.”
Reflecting on the stakes in the 2016 Memorial Cup final between the London Knights and the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies with four minutes and 26 seconds remaining in regulation time and the Huskies leading 2-1, that’s what London head coach Dale Hunter believed his players were feeling.
“Their heads were kind of hanging low (going into the final TV timeout) and we were in some trouble,” remembers Hunter.
It was May 29, 2016. The Knights had not lost a game since April 1.
For nearly two calendar months, London had always managed to find a way. Sixteen straight victories against increasingly skilled teams led them to an Ontario Hockey League championship and a perfect record in the round robin at the Memorial Cup in Red Deer, Alta.
But this felt different.
Rouyn-Noranda’s Julien Nantel had scored nine minutes and 13 seconds into the third period to break a 1-1 tie and no matter what the Knights seemed to throw at former OHL goalie Chase Marchand in the Huskies net, he seemed to turn it aside. It was like Marchand wasn’t just playing against another team. It was like he was taking on the whole league that had waived him two years earlier.
The only shot to beat him was a tip by Matthew Tkachuk of London on a Mitch Marner shot that seemed to propel itself away from Marchand and into the Rouyn-Noranda net.
That had given the Knights a 1-0 advantage at 9:19 of the second period.
London’s lead lasted 15 seconds before Francis Perron tied it at 9:34.
It’s hard to win 16 straight games. It’s even harder to win 17 in a row, especially when that 17th game is on major junior hockey’s biggest and most pressure-packed stage.
Maybe this wasn’t going to be London’s day.
And then Brandon Crawley got to his feet. The 19-year-old defenceman from New Jersey, who had spent every Christmas skating with his family at Rockefeller Center in New York, gave a gift to his teammates.
It wasn’t a goal or an assist. He didn’t throw himself in front of a slapshot aimed at an open net.
Crawley’s gift went unnoticed by everyone who was not on the London bench as the final television timeout began.
“He stood up and came down the bench right into the middle of it,” recalls Hunter. “He started saying things like, ‘We don’t quit! We don’t end it this way! This is not happening. This is NOT happening!’ And then he just went and sat back down. No one else said a thing. All of a sudden their heads picked up and they went back out onto the ice.”
That speech combined with a little Dale Hunter intuition was about to bring London exactly what it needed.
With a faceoff in the Knights’ end of the ice, London’s best faceoff man, Christian Dvorak was sent out to take it. This had been happening all game. The idea was for the Knights to gain possession of the puck and then have Dvorak get to the bench and be ready to go back out as soon as possible with his regular linemates, Marner and Tkachuk.
But Hunter got Dvorak’s attention as the future Arizona Coyote skated away from the bench. Hunter told Dvorak to stay on the ice after the faceoff.
“I was just looking get something going,” said Hunter, who had started to mix up lines a couple of shifts earlier, using rookie Robert Thomas with Cliff Pu and Max Jones.
Dvorak won the draw right to Aaron Berisha and he chipped the puck forward to Jones, who went powering through centre ice and flicked a one-handed backhand into the right corner of the Huskies zone. Jones was knocked off his feet right at the blue line and turned to see if there was a penalty.
In the game of hindsight, had Jones not been knocked down and had he not taken a second to glance in the direction of the nearest referee, what happened next may never have happened at all.
READ MORE: London Knights: Back in time — May 21
Jones stood up just as the puck was shovelled around the boards to the right of the Rouyn-Noranda end by Berisha. An extra surge of angry adrenaline may have given Jones an added pop in his step. The future Anaheim Duck threw his shoulder into Antoine Waked of the Huskies and dislodged the puck, which he sent back to Berisha.
Berisha faked as though he was going behind the Rouyn-Noranda net and then spun a backhand pass right onto the stick of Dvorak going to the net and the bang-bang play beat Marchand and pulled London even at 2-2.
From there, the belief was back for the Knights.
They had forced overtime.
In their dressing room, the wait between the third period and OT could not disappear quickly enough. There was no fear or trepidation. There were no nerves. There was no doubt.
The players in the London dressing room believed they were going to win.
It took a massive split save from Knights goalie Tyler Parsons off Timo Meier and then a play that will be remembered by Knights fans forever.
Aiden Jamieson’s pass to Matthew Tkachuk at the Huskies blue line. Tkachuk’s deft little pull of the puck into his body and a disguised shot through the screen of Dvorak crossing in front of Marchand and the Knights were champions.
Crawley’s speech and Hunter’s intuition helped the Knights to complete a record-setting season with a 17th straight victory and a Memorial Cup title.