In the two decades that the Hunter brothers have overseen the London Knights franchise, they’ve turned the team into a pipeline for NHL talent.
That’s one of the things that excited Connor McMichael about the Ontario Hockey League team — and it’s part of the pressure that comes with trying to live up to those lofty expectations in his draft-eligible year.
“I wanted to sit down with my family and my agent and look at some pros and cons — obviously that [history] came out for sure,” explained McMichael, who joined the Knights via trade last season after starting his junior career with the Hamilton Bulldogs.
“Coming to London, there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be developed properly with Dale and Mark [Hunter] and our assistant coaches.
“It’s been awesome so far and I’m loving it.”
London has dominated the first round of the NHL Draft over the years.
From current Knights Liam Foudy and Evan Bouchard, all the way back to Rick Nash and Corey Perry in 2002 and 2003 respectively, for many the way to the NHL is paved through the Forest City.
Those expectations are amplified by the fact that McMichael was the primary return for another NHL first-rounder — Robert Thomas.
“He’s obviously a really good player — he’s in the NHL now,” McMichael said. “So first of all I think it’s pretty cool to be traded for a player of that calibre. I don’t think there was too much pressure — well, maybe at the start.
“But after a week the guys were really welcoming and made it easy for me, so I didn’t feel that pressure.”
There are other pressures, though.
McMichael is regarded as one of the top OHL-based prospects eligible for the 2019 NHL Draft.
He’s excited to be spoken of as a potential first-rounder and possibly joining the ranks of those who have worn the green and gold before him.
“It’s pretty cool,” said McMichael, 21st in Future Considerations Winter ranking for the 2019 draft.
“I’ve seen a couple of lists of all the NHLers they’ve produced and every NHL game it seems like there’s a couple of London Knights playing in the game.”
McMichael credits the Hunters’ professional approach to player development is key to their success.
“They really care about the players,” he said. “Maybe some teams don’t take as much time as they do. Our assistant coaches stay with us on the ice after practice and work on those little things. That’s the main reason.”
So is it the Knights’ system that creates such a steady stream of players?
Or is it that good players are attracted to London?
For Knights assistant coach Dylan Hunter, it’s a combination that can only be successful when the players have the drive to get better.
“We like to think that we have a good system and we do everything we can with all the stuff we have here to develop them. But it’s up to the player to really come in,” Hunter said. “We have ice all day, but it’s up to them to come in, get in the gym, and do the work.
“He’s taken all the right strides that way.”
And thought the Knights have a history of first rounders, Hunter said it’s also important to realize that there are many ways to make the NHL — and they try to convey that to help reduce the stress of a player’s draft year.
It is, after all, a hectic season.
“It’s tough,” Hunter explained. “For them, they’ve built their whole life towards their draft year. We just try to explain to them that we’ve got guys who will be drafted top-10 and we have guys who don’t get drafted at all, but they’ve still played [in the NHL].
“We’re lucky enough to have enough history here where we’ve got guys like Dan Girardi or David Bolland who have had good careers — one’s a second rounder and one never got drafted. We just try to keep them in that mindset — we all want to get called on that day, but at the same time it’s not the end of the world.
“You just have to keep perfecting your craft and figure out what you can do to earn a spot in the show.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done.
As is keeping a level head in such a hectic year.
One that has McMichael showing he can be the next in a long line of great Knights.
“You want to say that you’re not [thinking about the draft], but you are for sure in the back of your mind,” McMichael said. “During games it’s always in the back of your mind a bit. But I’m having tonnes of fun and as June gets closer.
“I’m really looking forward to it.
“I think [having scouts in the crowd] motivates me. It makes my game elevate to a new level. I think I perform well under pressure and I think that’s something I really like.”