London has been the home of Major Junior hockey since 1965. This coming season will mark the 55th in franchise history and add another chapter to the already storied history of the club. Over the course of the franchise’s existence, they have generated more NHL games played by alumni than any other junior program in the world.
This season, the Knights will begin a new chapter in their history with the unveiling a revamped logo and set of jerseys. We thought that as the organization begins a new era in the team’s history that we would look back on the history of team.
The London Nationals (1965-68)
Junior hockey in London began back in 1960’s when the Nationals franchise joined the Ontario Hockey Association. Under the sponsorship of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Nationals began play in the Major Junior ranks in 1965 wearing a logo very similar to that worn by the NHL parent club. The Nationals name itself comes from the original sponsor of the team, the Canadian National Recreation Association, which began sponsoring the team in 1961 while they were still playing at the Junior B level. However, after only three years the Nationals were sold and renamed to the London Knights.
During the Nationals’ three seasons in the Major Junior ranks they amassed a record of 47-81-22 and were unable to make it out of the first round of the playoffs. However, while the team struggled to find success, 22 players that played for the organization went on to appear in either the NHL or WHA. Garry Unger and Darryl Sittler both suited up for the Nationals and went on to play over 1000 NHL games. Recent inductee into the Don Brankley London Knights Hall of Fame, Walt McKechnie, went on to play 955 games in the NHL after being the only Nationals player to total 100 points as a member of the organization.
The Knights are Born/The Darwin Era (1968-86)
As the sponsorship of junior teams by NHL franchises ended, the Nationals needed a new owner. Thus, in 1968, the Nationals franchise, and the London Gardens, were sold to businessman Howard Darwin. Through the results of a contest, the team was renamed to the Knights and moved to the colours green and gold. Darwin spent 18 seasons at the helm of the Knights before ultimately selling the team and their arena. During the 18 seasons that the team was owned by Darwin, they finished with a record of 548-538-94. The team battled their way to the finals in 1977 but ultimately were never able to seal the deal.
As the first two decades of Knights hockey in London began to unfold, the Knights organization continued to produce NHL players; having 64 players appear in NHL games after suiting up for the Knights. Included in the 64 NHLers that wore the green and gold during the Darwin era are Hall of Famers Brandon Shanahan, Dino Ciccarelli, and Darryl Sittler. Over the 18 seasons under Darwin, 13-year NHL veteran Brian Bradley led the franchise in scoring while local Londoner Brad Marsh played the most games for the team. Other notable players that played for the Knights during this era include former Toronto Maple Leafs captain Rob Ramage, London Knights Hall of Famers Dennis Maruk and Dave Lowry, Knights’ part-owner Basil McRae, and Knights broadcaster Rick Doyle.
A New Beginning (1986-94)
With the end of the 1986 season, there also came the end of an era for the London Knights. That summer the London Knights organization was sold to Jack Robillard, Al Martin, and Bob Wilson. In what was mostly seen as a real estate deal, the trio paid market value for London Gardens and a single dollar for the team. The group of businessmen from Paris, Ontario quickly turned the team around fueled by the continued emergence of young star Brandon Shanahan, the introduction of a modernized logo and the renovations of the London Gardens.
Under new ownership the team discovered a new energy and finished in the top third of the league for six straight seasons. The new-found prowess of the Knights organization was highlighted by three 100+ point seasons by Chris Taylor and another two by future NHLer Jason Allison. Over the stretch of eight seasons under the ownership of the Paris trio, the team amassed a record of 282-212-34. However, although the team was performing as best as it ever had, they still failed to secure a championship for the city of London. After the team failed to move past the first round of the playoffs in 1994, the trio of businessmen from Paris sold the team the Doug Tarry Sr., a real estate developer from St. Thomas.
Doug Tarry and “Spidey-Knight” (1994-00)
Doug Tarry Sr. purchased the London Knights franchise, and the London Gardens, from Robillard, Martin, and Wilson prior to the 1994 season. Sadly, before the Knights could take the ice under new ownership, Doug Tarry Sr. passed away. This left the organization in the hands of his son, Doug Tarry Jr. Tarry Jr. quickly made some major changes regarding the Knights’ franchise. The most infamous of decisions being the elimination of the Knight’s head logo for what has since become known as “Spidey-Knight”. “Knightro”, the official name of the new logo, ditched the classic green and gold for teal and purple while the logo itself resembled the comic book super hero Spider-Man. Tarry Jr. also renamed the London Gardens to the London Ice House, rid the organization of its previous misfortunes.
However, while the team would produce three long time NHLers (Rico Fata, Tom Kostopoulos, and Chris Kelly) in the coming years, dark days were ahead for the London Knights. In the first season sporting the “Spidey-Knight” logo, the team finished with their worst record since 1980-81. The following season the team reached a new low. The 1995-96 team only managed to win three games all season in what still stands as the league’s worst single season record. While the success of the team did tick up in the next couple years, the team missed the playoffs once again in 2000, leading to the sale of the team by Doug Tarry Jr.
The Hunter Era (2000-Present)
Mark and Dale Hunter bought the London Knights franchise, as well as the London Ice House, from the Tarry family in May of 2000. While “Spidey-Knight” hung around for two more seasons, in the summer of 2002 the Hunters announced the return of the classic Knight’s head logo with a touch of modern colours. This shift is branding launched a run of high-calibre hockey that continues to this day.
Since the Hunters took over the franchise in 2000, they have changed the logo of the team three times, moved the team downtown into what is now know as Budweiser Gardens, won four OHL Championships and brought the city of London two Memorial Cups. The 2004-05 London Knights team that brought the city not only their first OHL Championship but also their first Memorial Cup was also voted the CHL Team of the Century. This team finished the regular season with a record of 59-7-2 which stands as the best single season record in OHL history. Just over a decade later, the Knights won their second Memorial Cup, lead by a star-studded roster featuring current NHLers Mitch Marner, Matthew Tkachuk, and Christian Dvorak. Under the ownership and guidance of the Hunters, the London Knights have won a total of 890 games while only losing 437 and tying 26.
On top of the accomplishments of the team itself, the Hunter era of London Knights hockey has also seen 66 players make the jump to the NHL. This includes Rick Nash, Corey Perry, Patrick Kane, John Tavares, Nazem Kadri, Bo Horvat, Mitch Marner, Max Domi, and many more. At the end of this past NHL season, there has been almost 18000 NHL games played by players the Hunters have had pass through the London Knights under their ownership, and this number will continue to climb this coming season.
Now, as the puck drops on the 20th season of the Hunters’ London Knights, the team will introduce a new, fresh look to the league as the team looks to return to the top of the league once again.