The London Knights are a Junior A hockey team playing in the Ontario Hockey League, one of the three leagues that makes up the overarching Canadian Hockey League. A perennial favorite of hockey fans in London, Ontario, the London Knights operate as part of the farm system for the Toronto Maple Leafs of the National Hockey League. Playing out of a state-of-the-art facility in downtown London, the Knights perform to a packed house more often than not, and many of their players have gone on to play in the NHL, including some Hall of Fame players.
The London Nationals
The London Knights began as the London Nationals, a team that was created as a franchise in the Ontario Hockey Association and that began play in the 1965-66 season. The London Nationals were created explicitly as a farm team for the Toronto Maple Leafs, made to replace the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors, who had folded shortly after winning the 1961 Memorial Cup. The London Nationals were sponsored by the Canadian National Recreation Association, an athletic organization comprised largely of employees of the Canadian National Railway. Their uniforms were almost exactly that of the contemporary Toronto Maple Leafs uniforms, except with “London Nationals” in the place where “Toronto Maple Leafs” would have otherwise been. Before admittance into the Ontario Hockey Association, the London Nationals played at the Junior B level. However, once the Nationals were admitted into the Ontario Hockey Association as a Junior A team, the Junior B team moved to Ingersoll, where they for a short time were known as the Ingersoll Nationals.
Two record holders for the old London Nationals were a pair of long-time National Hockey League journeymen. Garry Unger played fifty games with the Nationals, during which he scored a whopping 42 goals (becoming the leader in career goals for the team). Afterwards, he played sixteen seasons in the NHL, from 1967 to 1983, playing for the Maple Leafs and also the Detroit Red Wings, the St. Louis Blues, the Atlanta Flames, the L.A. Kings, and the Edmonton Oilers. The all-time point leader (with 100 points) was Walt McKechnie, who went on to play pro for seventeen years for nine NHL teams, including the Maple Leafs, the Boston Bruins, the Washington Capitals, and the old Minnesota North Stars. Another well-known name who made their playing debut as a London National (and subsequently two years as a London Knight) was Darryl Sittler, who put in eleven seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, three as a Philadelphia Flyer, and one as a Detroit Red Wing; he is often brought up in conversations of the best NHL players to have ever lived.
The Darwin Era
In 1968 the National Hockey League ended the program of directly sponsoring the junior hockey system. Ottawa businessman Howard Darwin, an amateur boxer and real estate magnate who had started Ottawa Cablevision in 1965, bought the London Nationals for $500,000. He at the time was also the owner of the Ottawa 67’s, another OHL team. In order to shake things up and put his stamp on the team, Darwin held a contest to rename the team. Local baseball and hockey historian Brian Logie proposed the name “Knights”, which was the winner. With the new moniker, the team also chose to change the blue-and-white knockoff Maple Leafs colours to a more unique green, white, and gold colour set. The London Knights were born.
Success did not come early, however, even with a new name and a new outlook. The late 1960s and early 1970s were a hard time for the new Knights team, but as the Seventies wore on the team built strong lines and became a contender. The culmination of this wave of competition came in the 1976-77 season. The 1976-77 London Knights were a powerhouse, featuring three future NHL players. Two of them were hometown heroes. Rob Ramage, born down in the village of Byron, would go on to play fifteen seasons in the NHL with both the Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens, as well as the Calgary Flames, Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Philadelphia Flyers. Brad Marsh, born in the city of London, would become a journeyman defenceman in the NHL for fifteen seasons and would be an All-Star player in 1993. The third man would be born out-of-town (although nearby, in Sarnia, Ontario) but he was also Dino Ciccarelli, an NHL Hall of Famer who scored over 1,200 points with the Minnesota North Stars and the Detroit Red Wings. This stacked lineup cut through the Western Conference of the Ontario Hockey League like a scythe, defeating the St. Catharines Fincups, led by future Red Wing Dale McCourt. The Knights beat the Fincups in an overtime nailbiter but went on to lose the OHL final to the Ottawa 67’s.
The Robillard Era
The loss of the OHL final to the 67’s marked the end of the team’s fortunes for some time. By the early Eighties they were languishing in the cellar of the Emms Division, playing poorly and drawing much lighter crowds than in their mid-Seventies heyday. It was clear that the gas had run out of the franchise at the time; Howard Darwin began casting around for buyers and in 1986 he sold the team to a trio of businessmen from Paris, Ontario: Jack Robillard, Al Martin, and Bob Wilson. Like Darwin, they knew how to spread their risk; the Knights were owned by the same trio that owned the Hamilton Steelhawks. The sale was something more in the way of a real estate deal; the team itself was sold for a single dollar, while the Knights’ arena, the London Gardens, was sold to the trio at full market value.
The new owners kickstarted a new phase of competitive play for the London Knights at the end of the Eighties. Admittedly, while the renovation of the London Gardens probably added to the team’s sense of morale, the presence of future NHL superstar Brendan Shanahan on the team likely did more to boost the team’s fortunes. Shanahan, who played for the Knights in 1985-86 and 1986-87, brought the crowds back to the arena to cheer on the team. He would go on to play in the NHL until 2008, at first for the New Jersey Devils but more memorably for the Detroit Red Wings. He would win three Stanley Cups and be inducted into the Hall of Fame. The boost that Shanahan brought to the London Knights would carry them forward into the Nineties. From 1987 until 1993 the lowest the team would finish was third, and in 1989-90 they finished at the top of the Emms Division. Their success in the regular season was one thing, however; finding success in the post-season proved to be quite a bit harder. During this period the team never made it to the OHL finals, and the wave of team spirit faded by the time the alt-rock revolution broke over North America.
The Spiderknight Era
The trio of Robillard, Martin, and Wilson sold the London Knights in 1994 to St. Thomas, Ontario businessman Doug Tarry, Sr. Tarry Sr.’s untimely death led to the team being inherited by the owner’s son, Doug Tarry, Jr. Upon taking over the London Knights, Tarry Jr. renovated the London Gardens again, and changed the name so that it was known as the “London Ice House.” Tarry, Jr. also commissioned the infamous Knights logo and colour changes of the mid-Nineties. The long-time green, gold, and white colours were replaced with an eggplant-and-teal colour scheme. The existing Knights logo was replaced with a logo that has become derisively known by longtime Knights fans as the “Spider Knight” logo. The nickname is something of a misnomer; the logo more strongly resembles the Green Goblin, Spiderman’s nemesis, than it does Spidey himself. Still, the point is there: the logo was cartoonish at best, and ended up alienating a large portion of the Knights’ fanbase.
The team’s performance more or less matched fan expectations after the introduction of the Spider Knight logo. The 1995-96 London Knights season set a particularly ignomious record. Their record for that year was a pitiful 3 wins, 60 losses, and 3 ties, coming in with a dreary 9 points. This season was the worst for any team in the Canadian Hockey League, ever. It has since achieved lasting infamy as the team’s “Knightmare” season. They got better from there – they could hardly have done any worse – but most of the Nineties were spent languishing near the bottom of their division. Morale was at an all time low, stemming from the team’s poor performance and from the decaying condition of the London Ice House. The Ice House was falling apart largely because the team’s ownership wanted the city of London to partner with them in building a new arena, and had ceased putting any money toward repairs of the existent one.
The Hunter Era
In 1998-99, however, things turned around. The Knights, led by future Pittsburgh Penguin Rico Fata, surged right into the OHL championship. They ultimately lost the finals in seven games to the Belleville Bulls, but the challenge had been issued and the standard had been set. The next year a trio of former NHL players, including former Washington Capitals captain Dale Hunter, bought the London Knights and accelerated the process of turning the team around. The Ice House was sold off and closed at the end of the 2001-02 season, to be replaced by an exciting, big league new arena that doubled as a major entertainment complex for the city of London. Then it was known as the John Labatt Centre; now it’s known as the Budweiser Gardens. With a new ownership (with Dale Hunter doubling as a new head coach) and a new arena, the Knights 1998-99 season became just a jumping-off point to a new era of greatness.
By 2003 they were setting much better records than their dismal Knightmare season. Their 2003-04 season set an OHL record with 110 points in the regular season, although they lost the Western Conference final to the Guelph Storm. The next year they would set another record; they started off the 2004-05 season by going 31 games without a loss. That season saw the Knights break their previous season’s record by finishing with 120 points. That year also saw them blow through the playoffs and defeat the Ottawa 67’s in five games to win the J. Ross Robertson Cup, the OHL championship. London would host that year’s Memorial Cup tournament and win the Memorial Cup, defeating the Rimouski Oceanic 4-0 in the tournament’s championship game.
The history of the team since then has been one of continued success. Since the 2004-05 Memorial Cup win the Knights played in the tournament four more times, winning it again in 2015-16 against the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. The Hunter era of the London Knights has been easily the most successful, going from being a cartoonish also-ran in the Nineties to being a powerhouse of the Ontario Hockey League. Even advanced opportunities couldn’t keep the team’s core strengths from being torn apart. In 2011 Dale Hunter was given the chance to be the head coach of his old team, the Washington Capitals. He took the offer and coached the Capitals for the 2011-12 season, but he returned to London to coach the Knights again the very next year. There’s nothing quite like a cannonball of success to keep your life thrilling.
A team’s prestige and morale is tied up as much in their home arena as it is in their history and their record of championships. The London Knights’ home base, Budweiser Gardens, is one of the finest in all of the Canadian Hockey League. Located in the heart of downtown London, Budweiser Gardens is a state-of-the-art hockey facility, in many ways just a smaller version of an NHL arena. There’s room galore for fans, both home and visiting, with seating for over 9,000; this includes both bowl seating and private VIP sections. The exterior of the arena is an ultra-modern concrete-and-glass structure, except for the part of the arena at the intersection of Dundas and Talbot. This section is designed as a replica of the façade of the old Talbot Inn that stood on that corner beginning in the 19th Century. The Talbot Inn was a historical site for decades and was also at one point the epicenter of the London punk rock scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The inclusion of the façade into the architectural design of the Gardens is a clear indicator of the integration of the Knights into the city of London itself.
In addition to hockey and the large world-class shows that take place at the Gardens, the facility offers a great food and drink experience as well. The Talbot Bar and Grille offers 220 seats to Gardens ticket holders, and features a wide variety of food and drink on an eclectic menu. The corner of Dundas and Talbot also features the King Club, a full-service bar that opens up an hour before the start of the game and broadcasts the pre-game radio show throughout the lounge. It’s a great place to slip in and get hyped up for the hockey game before finding your seats inside the arena proper.
The home base of any great team is more than just the arena, of course. The city as a whole has to be behind the team, and the Knights are lucky in that they have just such a city. Part of this loyalty is based in the team’s sense of community involvement; they are a team that certainly knows how to give back. Their community involvement extends to any number of fundraising opportunities that see the team partnering with local organizations and corporations to raise money for their causes. Typically, this involves meet and greets with players, with the opportunity for fans to get autographs; donation matching by the Knights usually follows a 50/50 system. The fundraising integration into the community means that the Knights are truly London’s team.
Since the heady days of the Sixties, the city of London, Ontario has been the home of the London Knights, a Junior A hockey team that often serves as the starting point for great professional hockey players, many of whom go on to excel in the National Hockey League. With a cadre of Hall of Famers studded in their history, as well as modern stars like John Tavares and Nazem Kadri, the Knights have proven over the years to be a durable, capable incubator of raw, unflinching talent. From their home at Budweiser Gardens in downtown London, they continue to provide big league competition in the Ontario Hockey League.