By John Matisz/London Community News
Dylan Hunter bore the minor hockey league grind of lengthy bus trips and job insecurity for five years after playing the most games in franchise history as a London Knights forward. Though he experienced varied degrees of success as a professional player, in his mind nothing compares to the 2005 Memorial Cup.
When he combined nostalgia with an unparallelled personal connection to the Knights and a willingness to stay in hockey in some capacity, Dylan knew a return to London was inevitable.
Officially announced one of the club's assistant coaches Sept. 23, the ninth round selection of the Buffalo Sabres at the 2004 National Hockey League (NHL) Entry Draft is approximately 40 per cent of the way through his first season behind the bench.
Open to embrace any role thrown his way — whether it be coaching, scouting or statistical upkeep — the son of recently departed head coach Dale said a job with the Knights was ideal after deciding his playing career was over.
"I don't know what I would be doing," Dylan said of a career outside of hockey, "looking up something in the classifieds probably?"
At 26, Dylan is the youngest member of London's revamped hockey operations staff, which includes another new member, Knights legend and 15-year NHL veteran Rob Ramage. While Ramage's position was just recently made public, he has been a defensive consultant of sorts for the Knights since training camp while Dylan has focused most of his time and energy on the forward group and power-play.
The two-time 100-plus point-getter in the OHL was born seven years after assistant general manager/coach Misha Donskov, the next youngest in the hockey operations department. As well, the average age of London's current 25-man roster is 17.8, making Dylan the default middle-man.
"It's been different, it's been interesting," said Dylan of the early stages of his coaching career. "You do miss playing a little bit but being with these kids — and what happens when you teach somebody something and they actually go out and do it — is a pretty good feeling."
After temporarily turning down an assistant coach position with London in the summer, Dylan flew to Austria to suit up for a professional club based out of Slovenia, Acroni Jesenice. Like many European hockey excursions taken on by North Americans, Dylan left shortly after arriving due to unmet expectations.
The offer was still on the table when he returned, and Dylan bit right away.
"We're going to have about nine people on the bench in the future when everyone is done playing," Dylan joked, referring to some of his former Memorial Cup-winning teammates. "It's helpful if we have a guy like me because I'm coming right out of playing the game. I kind of know what most teams are doing."
Captain Jarred Tinordi grew up down the street from Dylan in the Washington, D.C., area while their dads played together for the NHL's Capitals. Having known his new coach for most of his life, Tinordi was one Knight who was aware of what to expect from day one of the short-lived three-man Hunter regime.
"He's really close with all of the players," Tinordi said, "and I think that's important to have in the coaching staff. He's been going through the drills, working with us in practice and stuff like that — some more hands-on, skills stuff — because he recently stopped playing and is still pretty fresh."
Now, with Dale steering the Capitals' ship, each member of the hockey operations staff has taken on a more prominent role, Dylan included.
Donskov, who admitted his time under Dale's wing was an invaluable experience, noted the apple does not fall too far from the tree, with both father and son possessing great listening and teaching skills.
"(Dylan) had an obviously great mentor and he knows what it takes to win at this level, the pro level," Donskov stated.
So do the contemporary Knights, the nation's No. 1 ranked major junior squad.
Largely viewed by pundits and fans as a team who has pre-maturely blossomed, Dylan sees a lot of similarities between the current Knights and the 2003-04 group who was knocked out in the OHL semi-finals.
The comradeship between teammates and high skill levels are key likenesses, Dylan said. Sound leadership, namely in the form of Tinordi and assistant captain Scott Harrington, have reminded Dylan of his past.
Dylan said one of the biggest thrills of being a Knight is playing in front of enormous home crowds.
The largest audience he played in front of during his post-OHL career was 7,000 in Hershey, Pa., which is about three-quarters of the John Labatt Centre's (JLC) capacity.
As a coach nowadays, the middle-man is stuck in the middle – emotionally.
"When Seth Griffith scored the overtime winner (against Owen Sound Nov. 20) — went bar-down from the point — that feeling came back with the whole crowd blowing the roof off," he recalled.
"Sometimes I just want to go out there and play the game again."