If you scan the photo posted by the London Knights’ official Twitter account moments after the club won the Western Conference final, you’ll eventually land on a hunched over, elated Misha Donskov.
The right-hand man to Mark Hunter is grinning from ear-to-ear, trying to contain the excitement of advancing to the Ontario Hockey League championship series.
As a member of the Knights’ front office for the past three seasons — first as an assistant coach and now as an assistant general manager and coach — Donskov, 35, is as much entrenched in the Hunter enterprise as anyone else.
However, he had not tasted success until Wednesday.
“It doesn’t really hit you until after the final buzzer,” he said Friday afternoon, with time to digest London’s Game 4 victory over the Kitchener Rangers. “You walk on the ice and see the smiles on the guys’ faces, the exuberance, and there’s nothing like it.”
The Knights, like most major junior hockey franchises, are fully aware it takes a tremendous amount of dedication from its players in order to bring home a championship. The same is expected from its front-line employees, especially a guy like Donskov, who is a two-for-one deal.
When head coach Dale Hunter was scooped up by the NHL’s Washington Capitals in late November, the Western University graduate’s workload thickened. Instead of there being a Hunter on each of his sides, just one remained.
“You get so busy during the day that you rarely have time to sit down and enjoy it,” the Columbus, Ohio, native said in reflection of London’s overachieving regular season and dominant first three rounds of the playoffs.
Donskov, a former member of the Atlanta Thrashers and Columbus Blue Jackets hockey and business operations departments, wouldn’t have it any other way, though.
Especially since days like Wednesday. On the way home from the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium, with a satellite television feed to the Washington-Boston Game 7 setting up a potential second victory of the night for the club, he experienced another “pinch me” moment.
“When (Washington Capitals assistant coach) Jim Johnson gave Dale a hug on the bench, the entire bus erupted,” he remembered vividly, adding “you could hear a pin drop up until Joel Ward scored.”
One could argue the entire year has been a thrilling ride for all involved with the inner workings of one of the favourites to claim the Memorial Cup. Seeing as they boast a pair of 1995-born and seven 1994-born players, London wasn’t expected to make a big splash prior to season puck-drop.
“Are we shocked? No,” Donskov said. “Did we think we’d get to this point, if you asked me in October? I don’t know. Nonetheless, we are where we are right now and it’s a good thing.”
The team will commence for dinner Saturday night before practicing as a full team Sunday for the first time since sweeping the Rangers.
Niagara or Ottawa?
“At this point, we’re obviously aware of what both teams bring to the table. We haven’t started watching video on both teams, but like we always do, we will watch hours and hours.” — Misha Donskov, London Knights assistant general manager/coach
In the regular season versus both the IceDogs and 67s, London went 1-1.