It’s the opening game of the season for the London Knights junior hockey team in London, Ontario, and spirits are high as they square up to the Erie Otters. Hockey fans – in Canada ice hockey is simply called hockey because for many it’s the only sport that matters – are preparing for the big game. Scorezy, a cuddly caricatured knight of the realm and the team’s jovial mascot, is waddling around outside the Budweiser Gardens arena. He offers high-fives and poses for photos with expectant fans, all of whom are dressed in the team’s colours: white, gold and bottle-green. (Scorezy’s predecessor, Sir Scores-A-Lot, retired last year).
“We never miss a game,” says Linda Carleton, a teaching assistant from nearby Belfast. “The noise is just phenomenal. You forget how young they are,” she says of the junior league players, who range from 16 to 21. “They’re so talented.” Linda and her husband Colin are part of the steady stream of people heading into the 9,000-capacity arena for the game. And, with the Knights reigning Canadian Hockey League champions, expectations are high.
“Everyone loves a winner,” says Jim Van Horne, a hockey commentator who has been broadcasting from London Knights games since 1979. “You’re in a junior-hockey environment but it’s every bit as much of a professional game as in the nhl [National Hockey League].” If hockey is Canada’s national obsession – played across the country by amateur players of all abilities, aged five to 85 – then junior hockey is where the dream of going pro is closest to being realised.
Codified in the late 19th century, ice hockey’s first organised indoor game was played in Montréal in 1875 but long before that its primitive forebear had been played on frozen lakes and ponds with makeshift sticks and round discs of wood. As the sport developed it wove its way into the corners of the fledgling nation. At the end of the Second World War servicemen returning to every corner of Canada opted not to raise cenotaphs or stone monoliths commemorating the dead but instead built hockey rinks. “The way they thought of dedicating their service to Canadians was to build these memorial ice-hockey arenas in their towns,” says Van Horne. “These arenas became the cultural centre of these small places right across the country.”
Ryan Pyette, a sports reporter for The London Free Press newspaper, believes this is a golden age for hockey. “I think it’s because these guys grew up watching and playing good junior hockey,” he says. “They’ve become great players themselves.” Over the past 10 years the London Knights have become one of the most celebrated teams in junior hockey, which serves as the primary feeder league to the professional world of the NHL.
Founded in 1965 as the London Nationals and renamed three years later, the team now boasts a trophy cabinet that is the envy of junior hockey teams across Canada. The proportion of its players who graduate into the nhl is also among the most impressive in the country. There are currently 16 Knights players at nhl training camps across Canada and the US in cities that include Calgary, Montréal, Dallas and Seattle.
“Playing for London is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says 17-year-old Ian Blacker, who was signed to the Knights in 2015 and will play his first full season with the team this year. “It’s surreal; it all happened so fast. I thought that being a part of the London Knights would help me become the hockey player I want to be – and become the pro I want to be. So we’re giving it a go. Hopefully it works out,” he says, laughing.
According to 79-year-old broadcaster Pete James, who has been reporting on the team since its inception in 1965, the Knights’ young drafts are like apprentices and “they’re apprenticing for a very lucrative life – if they make it”. It’s a big “if” too. Even though the Canadian Hockey League represents the best chance for many kids to get drafted into the nhl, it’s still a long shot: last year 96 players from across the chl were selected as draft picks, representing a tiny percentage of the players in the league. Even being a draft pick doesn’t ensure that an nhl contract will follow.
But the figures haven’t stymied the optimism: junior hockey in Canada has blossomed over the past decade. Between them Canada’s three junior leagues – in Ontario (ohl), Western Canada (whl) and the combined league of Québéc and the Maritimes (qmjhl) – now boast 60 franchises across Canada and the US, all governed by the Canadian Hockey League.
As the quality of the junior game has improved, public interest in it has soared. With this increase in quality and support, the fortunes of the franchises have risen too. When brothers and former nhl players Mark and Dale Hunter bought the London Knights in 2000, the team was in the wilderness. The selling price was a reported ca$3.8m (€2.5m) and the Hunters were the only bidders. Today the estimated value of the franchise is about ca$23m (€15m). It’s a trajectory that has been echoed by junior hockey teams across Canada, many of which are now worth tens of millions of dollars. The Ottawa 67s has an estimated value of about ca$55m (€37m) and is the wealthiest junior team in Canada.
While still a far cry from the profits generated by professional hockey teams – the Montréal Canadiens, Canada’s most lucrative sports franchise, is estimated to be worth ca$1bn (€678m) – the swelling coffers of junior teams such as the Knights are raising questions over how the game works and, specifically, how its young players are paid. Drafts are usually given a stipend and offered scholarships to universities at the end of their careers, the details of which are rarely made public.
“Some people say that the kids who go into junior hockey are taken advantage of,” says James, referring to a similar debate around college sports in the US. “I just don’t see it. If you come here, work hard and have the talent then you’ll always have the opportunity to go professional, which is the ultimate goal for all of them.”
Having played forward for the Knights for four years, 20-year-old CJ Yakimowicz knows how tough life as a junior hockey player can be. Training lasts for about five hours every day and starts at 14.00 with manoeuvres on the ice. A gym session follows before individual work with the Knights’ team of coaches. For the Knights’ younger drafts, school is woven into the training schedule; a nearby academy tailors the curriculum to accommodate the demands of the hockey season. “It’s exciting, it’s scary, it’s everything at once,” says Yakimowicz. “But I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
Rick Steadman is a former Knights player and an assistant coach on the team, and sees junior hockey as a personal-development process as much as a professional one. “We want these kids to develop as gentlemen,” he says. “Whether they go on to play in the nhl or become lawyers, we want them to be successful wherever they go.” Players are allowed to play with the Knights for four years, with an upper age limit of 21. As equipment manager Chris Maton puts it, if they haven’t been drafted by then “the dream begins to dwindle pretty quickly”.
Then there’s the rough-and-tumble, which is one of the sport’s major draws. The Punch-up in Piestany, a famous fight during the final of the 1987 World Junior Ice Hockey Championship between Canada and the Soviet Union, remains one of the most fabled sporting moments in the national psyche – and a treasured one, despite the carnage that ensued.
With six minutes to go before the end of the game’s second period, a brawl between a Soviet and a Canadian player spiralled into a raucous, violent free-for-all. Players from both teams’ benches streamed onto the ice and joined the fray. The lights of the arena in what is now Slovakia were famously turned off mid-brawl in an effort to diffuse the face-off – to no avail. Both teams were disqualified and the Canadian players were escorted out of the country by an armed guard. But Canada had won, both on the scoreboard (4-2) and in the hearts of the watching nation back at home, buoyed by a decisive emotional victory in the stalemate of the Cold War.
“Sometimes it’s a little rough,” says 24-year-old Brittan Williams, a social worker eating popcorn with her parents in the upper tier of Budweiser Gardens. “But that’s because it’s fast, exciting and much better than it was. They’ve told these young guys how important sportsmanship is and that their skills shouldn’t be about fighting.” However, not everyone got the memo. “My mum thought I was an aggressive child,” says Yakimowicz. “So she said, ‘Why not try hockey? You can hit, you can fight, you can do whatever you want.’ So they shipped me off here when I was 17 and I’ve never looked back.”
Thankfully developments in equipment technology – the materials used for the padding, helmets, hockey sticks and even pucks – have evolved over the years. This hasn’t quite allayed concerns over the long-lasting effects of hockey’s high-impact activity on those who play it, though there hasn’t been enough backlash to stop fighting altogether.
As the clock ticks down on the third and final period of the Knights game, Scorezy is bouncing around the aisles at Budweiser Gardens. It’s a win for the London Knights (6-4) and the crowd are on their feet. Yakimowicz was among the goal-scorers. “It feels pretty good, especially in a big moment like that,” he says breathlessly at the end of the game.
“It’s a dream come true,” says 19-year-old Sam Miletic, who scored the Knights’ opening goal. “When you’re skating around as a five-year-old kid you picture yourself scoring big goals and being part of a team like this. I can’t believe it.”
As another season gets underway for the London Knights and hockey teams across Canada, the cycle of dreams born and broken begins anew. The players who shine this season could go on to hockey’s professional leagues. For those who don’t, personal ambitions will go unfulfilled.
“There are only so many lads who are going to realise their dreams,” says 80-year-old Bill Bingham, a former scout for the Knights. “But it’s about team-building, playing together and being co-operative, and as long we all keep that in mind hockey is always going to be fun to play.”