Path to London runs through GOJHL for several Knights standouts

The London Knights continue to embrace a successful strategy in the OHL by developing some of their key players through the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League (GOJHL) with three different affiliates: the London Nationals, St. Thomas Stars, and Komoka Kings. This approach has paid off for the Knights, with a handful of current regulars in Oliver Bonk (St. Thomas Stars), Easton Cowan (Komoka Kings), Jared Woolley (St. Thomas Stars), William Nicholl (St. Thomas Stars), Jacob Julien (London Nationals), Sam O’Reilly (London Nationals) and goaltender Owen Willmore (St. Thomas Stars/Stratford Warriors) having progressed through this system and contributing to the Knights’ OHL championship lineup.

Three of those names in Bonk (1st round, Philadelphia 2023), Cowan (1st round, Toronto 2023) and Julien (5th round, Winnipeg) have blossomed into NHL Draft picks while the remaining three are eligible for this summer’s NHL Draft set to be held at the end of June in Las Vegas.

Head Coach Dale Hunter elaborated on the process of sending players through Junior B to develop their skills at a young age, emphasizing the benefits for both the players’ growth and the future of the team.

“It really has helped us. They get to play Junior B… they’re first on the power play, penalty kills, top pairings, and then they get to practice with us too and get in some games. When you get a combination of both, lots of ice time, and watch them compete against our top-end guys here, it really brings up their game,” said Hunter.

“They get to go back to Junior B and feel good about themselves. They don’t lose their confidence because sometimes it’s hard to score when you’re 16 and 17 in the OHL. This way, they keep their confidence because the night before, they just got two or three goals in Junior B.”

Former St. Thomas Stars defenceman and Philadelphia Flyers prospect Oliver Bonk is a prime example of the success of this development path. Selected 22nd overall in the 2023 NHL Draft, Bonk, a first team OHL all-star in 2023-24, recorded 67 points (24-43-67) in 60 regular-season games this season, along with 16 points (7-9-16) in 18 playoff contests.

Discussing the feedback he received while playing for St. Thomas, Bonk noted the continuous involvement from the Knights’ coaching staff during the process.

“There was a Knights scout at every home game in St. Thomas. We got a lot of input from the scout watching, but also the coaches that watch video. They watch Knights video, and then they always watch Junior B video too. You get to practice with the Knights every single day, it’s a really good experience,” Bonk explained.

On the transition from AAA to the OHL, Bonk highlighted the benefits of developing in the GOJHL.

“I think it’s a good medium to stay consistent and build on your power play and penalty kill abilities. You’re not limited to three or four minutes a night as a young guy; you’d be playing 25-30 minutes. It’s good to get some reps in and ease you into the junior level.”

Jared Woolley, also from the St. Thomas organization, spoke about the challenges of moving up to the OHL level with a team as skilled as the Knights. “The speed is one thing that you notice. There are some better players in the OHL obviously, and they definitely pace up the play”.

Reflecting on the team’s journey to becoming League champions and currently competing at the 2024 Memorial Cup, Woolley shared his excitement.

“It’s cool to be playing for the St. Thomas Stars one day and then be playing in the Memorial Cup for a CHL championship a couple months later. It’s been a great experience,” he said.

As the Knights aim to capture their third Memorial Cup in franchise history, Coach Hunter spoke on the players’ development and their rightful place at the tournament.

“These players got better and better, and they deserve to be here playing. They can only get better from this experience,” he said.

With the Knights up 2-0 in the tournament, they will return to action on Wednesday against the host Saginaw Spirit at 7:30 PM to compete for a spot in the Memorial Cup Final.