CTV’s Norman James caught up with Knights head coach Dale Hunter, where they discussed Leafs prospects J.J. Piccinich and Mitch Marner and the upcoming season in London.

Norman James: It’s amazing, the succession and the talent level of all of these players that you’ve introduced over the summer. Pretty incredible stuff, but par for the course for the London Knights. On paper, you have an All-Star team — a team that should contend — but as the head coach, how do you get all of these personalities, all of these egos, all of this talent, to gel and actually produce winning hockey?
Dale Hunter: It’s always a thing. Again, it comes from your quality of players. They’re team guys, they’re not individuals. To be successful, and to get individual goals, you have to play a team game, and that’s how you get success. And they know it. They’re good kids, all the kids we signed – these two guys, I talked to their coaches, they’re leaders on their team, they care about winning. Good things will happen to them.

It’s interesting how the dominoes have fallen. You sign Matt Tkachuk several months ago, and then Max Jones comes aboard, and then you sign your top picks, and now Piccinich and Sherwood. Do you find that, when you sign one good player, the rest want to show up, too?
Yeah, they do. It’s one of those things. They see the opportunity here, with losing some of our top-end guys from last year, that they can go in and play in the top lines and play with two good centermen like Mitch Marner and “Dvo.” They know they can put up numbers. We expect big numbers from these players. We expect them to score goals because we’re losing a lot of goals this year. We expect big things from them.

What stands out to a lot of hockey people is that the players you’ve brought aboard already have hockey wisdom. It’s not like they’re completely green; guys who have cultivated at other levels [have] sort of come together to have one massive season with the Knights.
Yeah, they are. With JJ, he wants to sign a contract. Players come here for two years and you sign a contract. That’s what their goal is. You’ve got to have good years to do it.

Interesting stuff with a player like JJ, leaving the NCAA to come up here: It’s a bone of contention, especially south of the border. From the London Knights perspective, do you look at it and say, “look, it’s part of the business, it’s no hard feelings?”
It’s no hard feelings. It’s whatever the best development [is] at that time for different kids. For JJ, it was best for his development to come here to London and play a lot of games and get noticed and get a contract.

What’s it like working with your brother, who is now with the Toronto Maple Leafs? Obviously there are synergies there. Have the lines of communication opened that much more? I know you miss Mark, but….
It comes down to the boy and the family to make a choice where they want to play and what’s best for them. At this time, he felt it was his best chance to come here, score a bunch of goals, and get signed by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Mitch is having a nice tournament at the Showcase.
He looks real good. That’s him, though. He’s a special player. These guys see the opportunity; they’re going to play with him. It’s a great opportunity for them.

It’s interesting. A lot of Leafs fans who don’t understand Mitch Marner, talking about him like he’s some revelation. Guys like us, we know what Mitch is about. He’s a plug-and-play kind of guy, is he not?
He is. He’s got skill, and he can really play. You just see him out there against kids that are a little older than him; it doesn’t matter. He just goes out and plays. He is going to be a great player. He’s one of those guys where it’s rare. He can really stickhandle and move the puck, and he’s got great vision on the ice.

Is he the kind of player where you don’t really have to teach him how to play hockey, you just want him to get a little bit stronger, a little bit bigger, a little bit smarter?
His smarts are outstanding. We all know he has to get stronger, and he’s been working real hard on lifting weights to have another great year here with us. He’s going to Maple Leafs camp. It’s great for him. Team Canada’s played well. He’ll go to the camp in Toronto and play well, too.

Last question for you – the OHL is a staging ground for players, but especially this year, it’s a staging ground and a launching point for NHL careers. DJ Smith and Lindsay Hofford moving up, and of course Mark [Hunter]. Do you say to yourself, “that just causes us to scramble, we’ve got to hire new guys?” Are you excited to see managers and coaches get a chance to move on to the next level?
That’s what’s great about our League. You’ve seen a lot of them. Boughner out of Windsor; you could just keep going down through them. They just keep moving up. Management, scouts, coaches, assistant coaches. We’re a development league; that’s what we pride ourselves on: not just players, but all management situations.

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