Dale Hunter is underappreciated as a hockey coach.
Not in London, of course. But he doesn’t get enough credit everywhere else around the Ontario Hockey League.
This past season, the Knights boss led Canada to dramatic gold at the world juniors. He joined Brian Kilrea and the late Bert Templeton in the career 800-win club and he did it way quicker than either of those legends.
He also guided London to first place in a competitive Western Conference, backstopped by Brett Brochu, a 17-year-old rookie goaltender.
But most of that was forgotten when it was time to hand out the Matt Leyden Trophy as the league’s top coach. That GM-voted honour when to Ottawa’s Andre Tourigny for a second straight season.
Now, Tourigny is a wonderful and talented skipper. The 67’s are fortunate to have him and the Hunters respect him a ton for his efforts as a world junior assistant this year.
In fact, he was tabbed by Hockey Canada to succeed Dale Hunter if the 2021 tournament is held in Alberta this winter.
But you can’t argue that Ottawa’s 50 wins in 2019-20 are superior or even equal to the 45 victories London posted in the coronavirus-shortened campaign.
First, the Knights beat the 67’s in both head-to-head meetings. In fact, their 4-2 post-trade deadline triumph in Ottawa Feb. 17 actually cemented them as the favourite to advance to the Memorial Cup, originally scheduled for Kelowna.
But more importantly, Tourigny again had the benefit of a significantly weaker Eastern Conference. Five of the league’s six worst teams resided there.
The Central Division, which Ottawa gets to play twice as often as London, was particularly dreadful. Give London eight to 10 more games against those squads and Hunter would have been well over 50 wins.
In the grand scheme, who really cares about an individual award? Sports means next to nothing right now and the season wasn’t even completed, so everything comes with an asterisk.
But it is a matter of respect.
No coach has come close to winning as many OHL games in the last 15 years as Hunter. No one churns out the number of NHL first-rounders and star players, either.
Over the last decade-and-a-half, he has been named top coach just once — when Nazem Kadri and company unexpectedly finished first in the Midwest Division.
It’s not limited to Hunter, either.
The Knights, as a whole, are underrepresented in the OHL’s annual year-end awards haul.
Brochu won the Dinty Moore trophy, but that’s a stats-based honour for lowest goals-against average by a rookie.
Unless he somehow upsets Kingston’s Shane Wright for top first-year player or beats Guelph’s Nico Daws as best goalie, the Knights might get shut out again (and they had the second-best record in the league).
You can start by blaming the process.
When you leave it up to the teams, the voting is often flawed by conference bias and petty jealousies.
If you’re in the Eastern Conference and Tourigny’s 67’s mauled you at every turn, you’re picking him. In the West, you had Hunter, but also Saginaw’s Chris Lazary and Eric Wellwood, who led Flint out of the ashes, as strong candidates.
So they’re taking away points from each other.
The system is not at all transparent, either. GMs don’t reveal their selections.
If you’re in London’s division and Dale Hunter’s team routinely beats you in your own building, are you honestly putting him first on the top coach ballot?
Clearly, not enough do.
Some chalk up the Knights’ consistent success to player recruitment. But that is constantly selling Dale Hunter short.
Everyone saw his worth in the gold-medal comeback against Russia at Ostrava. He never panicked, his system eventually wore down the opposition and he put the right guys on the ice in the end.
It’s a familiar script at Budweiser Gardens. Hunter’s teams have done the same to the majority of their OHL foes over the past few years.
They ought to recognize that and vote for him more.