Craig Bowden is getting used to the seven-hour drive to Columbus.
The London, Ontario native, with family and friends in tow, waits patiently behind a barrier in the bowels of Nationwide Arena, hoping to get a glimpse of some Blue Jacket players. If the autographed London Knights jersey he wears is any indication, the three he would love to see most are captain Rick Nash, rugged D-man Marc Methot and goaltending phenom Steve Mason.
Each were former Knights.
"It's our fourth year in a row coming down," says Bowden. "School break for the kids."
One of the Bowden clan, 12-year-old Matt, is pumped. He's wearing a Nash Columbus jersey and is pleased that the captain was able to tie the game in regulation, allowing the Jackets to go on to a huge overtime win Sunday against Chicago (who also feature two Knights in Dave Bolland Patrick Kane).
"It's good to see how he's progressed from the OHL through to the NHL now," Matt says of Nash.
On most game days at Nationwide Arena, the distinctive green and gold colors of the Knights are easy to find among the crowd.
The Jackets trio never played together but they do represent the recent evolution of one of Canada's most successful junior franchises.
Nash played there in the 2000-01 and 2001-02 seasons before Columbus made him the top pick of the 2002 Entry Draft. Methot was a Knight from the 2002-03 season to 2004-05, capping his junior career in style with a Memorial Cup win in front of the rabid Knights' faithful on the home ice of London's immaculate John Labatt Centre. Mason’s tenure began with 12 regular season appearances in 2005-06 and after posting a 45-13-4 record the next season, he played in 26 games in 2007-08 before a trade sent him to the Knights' rival Kitchener Rangers.
Even Blue Jackets assistant coach Gary Agnew knows what London hockey life is like. He coached the Knights for seven total seasons in two different stints, winning coach of the year honors in 1992-93.
The three Columbus players realize now that their time in London was instrumental in the success they have enjoyed as NHLers. The culture of professionalism has produced some world-class players like Brendan Shanahan, Dino Ciccarelli and Darryl Sittler but ever since Dale and Mark Hunter bought the club in 2000, London has become a factory for young stars.
"We didn't know it at the time but they ran it like an NHL franchise," Nash says of the Hunters. "It was first class. The practices were great. It was fast. We do drills now that we did in London.
"We were ahead of the curve."
It wasn't long ago that Mason was developing his game in London but his most vivid memories as a Knight were playing home games in front of the JLC crowd, the state-of-the-art 9,100-seat facility that replaced the old Ice House in London.
"The city really wrapped itself around the team as if it were a pro team," says Mason. "In the past few years, they've had a winning team and been near the top of the league so they were accustomed to having success and us going on playoff drives. It was a fun time to play there. The fans really understood the game.
"The electricity the crowd brought to every game was a lot of fun.They kind of prepared you for the pro atmosphere.”
Of the three London alum, Methot has enjoyed the greatest success.
When he eventually plays his first NHL playoff game, Methot can draw upon his final junior game for inspiration. He shadowed the Rimouski Oceanic's Sidney Crosby in the 2005 Memorial Cup final, a game London won 4-0.
"Our last season being the lockout season in the NHL, it really gave us that much more media attention and we were able to thrive off that," says Methot, recalling the hordes of press that descended on London for the hockey event of the year. "It was like a perfect season.
"We were fortunate enough to get that win. I'll remember that as long as I live."
Methot, who constantly keeps in touch with his Memorial Cup-winning teammates (like Anaheim's Corey Perry), says there's a definite fraternity among former Knights. The franchise helped them become the players they are today and the city of 450,000-plus embraced them.
The three Jackets who played in London are among a group of well over 100 Knights players that have suited up in the NHL. With Columbus being a somewhat reasonable drive away for diehard London families like the Bowdens, expect to see more of the green and gold at Nationwide in the future.
"It's a pretty special organization," says Nash.