In a quiet dressing room otherwise occupied by dour half-undressed men, Nikita Zadorov, then 18, beamed. He had just played his first NHL regular-season game, 11 largely uneventful minutes during which he managed to avoid coughing up the puck and levelled three hits that winded members of the Colorado Avalanche. Sure, Zadorov’s Buffalo Sabres had lost 4–2, but Colorado was the winningest team in the league at that juncture and fans at the First Niagara Center took solace in the fact their lowly regarded heroes had kept it close.
As the Sabres hung up their skates and began their retreat into the backrooms, away from notepads and television cameras, the veterans glanced over at Zadorov, not begrudging him his moment or innocence. "I’m never nervous before the game," he told reporters. "It’s my life to play hockey. I did a pretty good job in the pre-season and the coaches saw that. I think they think I’m ready to go."
Making the NHL straight out of junior hockey as Zadorov did last fall is the dream of teenage hockey players. But staying in Buffalo would have been a waking nightmare for the Moscow native. Perhaps the luckiest break in Zadarov’s young life came when the Sabres sent him back to junior after he’d played seven games in the NHL. Bo Horvat, Zadarov’s teammate in junior, was similarly fortunate when reassigned to London from the Vancouver Canucks camp. In most cases these moves would be classified as demotions or exiles. Instead they were, for both players, escapes from toxic situations, refuge found with the Canadian Hockey League’s London Knights, who are about to play in their fourth MasterCard Memorial Cup in 10 years. Though they take the bus rather than charter flights, the ostensibly amateur Knights could teach lessons in professionalism to a few NHL teams.
Last fall, the Knights were in an awkward spot: The two-time defending Ontario Hockey League champions were slotted to host the national championship at season’s end and almost half the roster was, like Zadorov, off at NHL training camps, with four first-round draft picks threatening to stick in the men’s league while still teenagers: Horvat; winger Max Domi in Phoenix; defenceman Olli Maatta in Pittsburgh; and Zadorov. Horvat and Domi, both 18, wound up being sent back to London before the season started, while Maatta, 19, stayed with the Penguins, playing in 78 regular-season games and racking up 18 minutes a night during their run to the second round of the playoffs. Zadorov, though, was a separate and distinct case. He wasn’t just a threat to stick with any NHL team—no, he was on the roster of the unmitigated disaster that was the 2013–14 edition of the Buffalo Sabres.
Nothing could prepare a young player for the horror show the Sabres became last fall. In Ron Rolston they had a rookie NHL coach who was clearly out-matched. GM Darcy Regier had been on the scene for 16 years, long enough to know that his team was in an inexorable downward spiral and his job security could be measured in minutes. Every veteran in the room knew that he was an asset on the trading block—they were just waiting for a phone call or a summons to the coach’s office. And worst of all, Buffalo was carrying four teenagers on its roster, the first NHL team able to make that claim in 18 years. Not that it was a bragging point. The impending chaos was obvious. "Even the young guys know what’s going on," says Zadorov. "You have to know."
Meanwhile, across the border and 90 minutes down the highway, the Knights were the very model of stability, just as they have been since the Hunter brothers, Dale and Mark, bought the franchise in 2001. For decades prior, London was a poor cousin in the Ontario loop, not a place high on any player’s list. With Dale behind the bench and Mark in the GM’s office, the Hunters shifted that paradigm in short order. They brought more than 2,000 games of NHL experience to the table. And while most coaches in the CHL are looking to pad their resumés to get an NHL job, Dale walked away from one after engineering the Washington Capitals’ first-round playoff upset of the defending Stanley Cup–champion Boston Bruins while on leave from the Knights in 2011–12. If you can get Alex Ovechkin to buy in, at least modestly, to a defensive system, you’ve carved out a niche that you’ll occupy alone.
The Hunters’ reputation has made the Knights the preferred destination for top prospects. Domi eschewed signing with Kingston, which forced a trade to London. Top American players are coaxed from the United States Hockey League and the U.S. under-18 program to forgo college, as goalie Anthony Stolarz and winger Michael McCarron did this year.
Zadorov didn’t know about the Hunters and the Knights when he arrived in London back in the fall of 2012. A product of CSKA Moscow’s junior program, he caught the Hunters’ attention at the under-17s a couple of years back and they made him their priority in the CHL import draft. Zadorov made an impression and sent a message in his OHL debut, dropping the gloves with Erie’s Johnny McGuire, one of the league’s toughest and most experienced fighters. "My first hockey fight ever," he says. "It was a fun thing. I showed I belong here."
The Sabres didn’t draft Zadorov 16th overall last June for his fighting ability. In his first season in London, he made big strides, finishing a plus-33 during the regular season and taking a bigger role on a team that made it as far as the semifinals at the national championship. "I think I improved because of the work I did in the gym," says Zadorov, who didn’t speak a word of English when he arrived in Canada but is now thoroughly conversational in it. "When I came here, I was 235 pounds and 18 percent body fat. Now I’m 235 pounds and nine percent. With work this summer I can play at 245."
For Zadorov, there was no heartbreak after getting his taste of the NHL life. Over the stretch of a few weeks he experienced his share of firsts. Just days after his first game, he scored his first NHL goal. He cashed his first NHL paycheque. He flew on charters for the first time. He made his first trips to Florida and California. He dined in five-star restaurants and stayed in five-star hotels. "Maybe I was there for the best times in the season," he says. "It was an amazing experience."
But staying on with the big club would have been just about the ultimate this-will-not-end-well situation. "I’m happy coming back," Zadorov says of London. "It’s not [about] today or tomorrow. I have many seasons to play. There is no rush. This time in London is good for me." Precisely why is best explained by Horvat, another Knight whose development might have suffered by a rush into the NHL at age 18, having to watch a lot more hockey than he played in a high-pressure environment. Vancouver drafted Horvat ninth overall last June with the pick that came over in the trade of Corey Schneider to New Jersey. It looked like a good situation for a teenager to be broken into the lineup slowly. After all, the Canucks were a veteran group and had a deep roster. In retrospect, though, one of the few things Vancouver got right this season was sending Horvat back to London and sparing him prolonged exposure to the limited-run sideshow that was the John Tortorella era.
Even though he was working on his game three time zones away from the meltdown in Vancouver, Horvat has been one of the most discussed topics on Canucks message boards. Before he has played a regular-season NHL game, the analytics crowd is questioning whether he will be productive enough to be a top-six forward at the next level. Horvat argues that the numbers don’t matter with the Knights and seals his case with a point that hammers home London’s success in developing NHLers. "The focus here is on winning," he says. "You’re shown what to do and you better do it. If you’re doing what it takes to win, development is going to take care of itself. When you get to play in the world juniors and the Memorial Cup, those are learning experiences. They push you to improve your game."
Zadorov and Horvat both could have lasted with their NHL teams this season, but both were sent down—for their own good, as it turns out. Ordeal doesn’t make for good player development. Ordeal is what it would have been for Zadorov with the Sabres. Ordeal is what it would have been for Horvat with the Canucks and a blow-top coach trying to impose his game on players ill-suited to play it. No, Zadorov and Horvat will go back to Buffalo and Vancouver better for another season of experience in London and at the title tournament and for their protection from NHL franchises in turmoil. Hopefully, when they make the step up, they’ll be joining organizations as professional as the one in the bus league.