It took the London Knights 89 gruelling games of dominant hockey to get to where they were on Sunday — on the road to the Memorial Cup final.
On the way to Red Deer, Alberta, records were broken, headlines were made and powerhouse opponents were sent packing, and at the end of the day, they won the Ontario Hockey League championship with apparent ease.
Everything that happened before is irrelevant in a single-elimination championship game, though. It can all come down to just one goal.
The Knights, favoured heading into the final against the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, won 3-2 in overtime to claim their second national championship in team history.
Left winger Matthew Tkachuk scored twice in the game, one of which was the golden goal which he netted 7:49 into overtime to clinch victory. His linemate and co-captain Christian Dvorak had some heroics of his own as well, tying the game at two with less than five minutes remaining and forcing it into an extra frame.
It was an intense game with both teams trading chances the whole way through. Knights fans, either in Red Deer, at a viewing party in Western Fair or on their couches, were on the edge of their seats all night.
“I got more grey hair because of [that game],” said head coach Dale Hunter in a speech to fans in London on Monday.
“When you’re down a goal late in the game, the other team’s protecting, [that’s] the toughest one to come back. You win with character, and that’s what these boys have ... When [Tkachuk] scored the overtime goal, I almost fell off the bench."
Tkachuk’s first goal put London ahead briefly in the second period, but Rouyn-Noranda responded just 15 seconds later to tie the game. The deadlock lasted until midway through the third, when the Huskies’ Julien Nantel gave his team the lead, which lasted until Dvorak’s season-saving equalizer.
Both teams’ goalies were phenomenal, as the Huskies’ Chase Marchand kept his team in the game and shut the door on London 28 times in the last game of his junior career.
The Knights’ Tyler Parsons made 31 saves, many of which left shooters in disbelief. Parsons has been a rock for London all year, particularly in the playoffs, as he tries to make a case to be picked at the National Hockey League’s entry draft in June.
Parsons was named to the Memorial Cup All-Star team as the top goalie, joining teammates Mitch Marner, Olli Juolevi, and Dvorak.
London qualified for the Memorial Cup as the OHL champions, storming through the playoffs and defeating the Niagara IceDogs in the final to lift the J. Ross Robertson Cup. Riding a 14-game winning streak — a league record — into the national tournament in Red Deer, the Knights were considered favourites from the outset.
They were undefeated in round robin play, topping the Huskies, Western Hockey League champions Brandon Wheat Kings, and hosts Red Deer Rebels on the way to a spot in the final. They outscored their opponents 20-5 through those three games, continuing to roll as the hottest team in junior hockey.
Mitch Marner, co-captain of the Knights and future Toronto Maple Leaf, was perhaps the most special player on the team. He recorded two goals and 12 assists in the tournament; his 14 points just two shy of the all-time record.
After the game on Sunday he added the Memorial Cup MVP trophy to his collection, which accompanied the OHL playoff MVP award and the player-of-the-year trophies for both the OHL and Canadian Hockey League.
Marner, a native of Markham, Ontario, is just the second player in hockey history to achieve this feat and sweep all four individual awards, the first being Brad Richards in 2000. He sits fourteenth on the team’s all-time leading scorers list with 301 career points, and with this performance he is sure to have his number raised to the rafters of Budweiser Gardens several years down the road.
This championship means the world to the city of London. The Knights have been a premier franchise in the OHL since Dale and Mark Hunter bought the team in 2000. They’ve been to the Memorial Cup five times since (four in the last five years), but have only ever managed to win the trophy once, in their own barn in 2005.
Five Knights players on the team this year were part of the 2014 team that hosted the Memorial Cup tournament at Bud Gardens, where they infamously lost every game in a disappointing end to the season.
Londoners came out in droves to Victoria Park on Monday to welcome their conquering heroes back home, who haven’t played at the Bud since May 7. The team’s radio announcer Mike Stubbs of CJBK London led a sea of green in reliving the moment of triumph from the previous night.
Knights general manager Basil McRae acknowledged the support in his address to the crowd.
“We have the best fans in not only the OHL, but the CHL,” he said.
Mitch Marner echoed the sentiment in his own speech, adding, “In three years of being here, I’ve never been in a better fanbase, or an arena that’s even close to as loud as ours.”
There is little left to accomplish at this level for the Knights' top players, and with both Marner and Dvorak unlikely to return next year, they have left the city of London with the best parting gift they could.