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Sabres' Hunter making a name for himself

The barbs and catcalls were voluminous. At rinks from Owen Sound to Sault Ste. Marie, Dylan Hunter heard an earful.

Nepotism was the prevailing theme. He was skating for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. His uncle was the general manager who drafted him. His father became the head coach.

And if that wasn't enough at first blush, his uncle is former NHL player Mark Hunter. His father is notorious agitator Dale Hunter. The family also owns the Knights.

It was a lot for a 16-year-old to live up to, especially when the young forward scored only six times his first season.

Yet Dylan Hunter coped just fine.

Four years later Dylan Hunter is skating in the Buffalo Sabres' training camp a few months removed from playing a monumental role on one of the most dominant hockey teams at any level.

He won't make the Sabres this time around, but the organization has liked his game enough to take an extended look at him by assigning him to the Rochester Americans' camp. His options are to return to London as an over-age player -- he turned 20 in May -- or join the Amerks.

"With his last name he's had a lot of adversity to deal with," said Knights goalie and fellow Sabres camper Adam Dennis. "At the start of his OHL career he had it a little tough. The fans gave it to him a little bit. There were big expectations, and he was a young guy.

"He's worked through it, and he's battled so hard. It's no fluke he had 100 points. He's a great player, and he earns every second he's on the ice."

Dylan Hunter was the OHL's second-leading scorer last season with 31 goals and 73 assists. The Knights won their first 32 games and, including the playoffs, finished with a 79-9-2 record and their first Memorial Cup after four decades of existence.

Dylan Hunter's season made the Sabres look brilliant for taking a ninth-round flier on him in the 2004 draft. Two hundred and seventy-two players projected better than him that year? Maybe not in retrospect.

"The good thing about having a family that's into hockey is that they're always saying they knew underdogs that made it," Dylan Hunter said.

"I knew what he had," Dale Hunter said last week after sitting alone in the HSBC Arena stands and watching his son scrimmage. "He's gotten better and better every year, in better shape every year. Some kids progress at different times. He's turned into a good hockey player."

Dylan Hunter conceded his bloodlines could sometimes be a nuisance, that he would prefer to be known on his own merits. Oh, how he would love to routinely make it through an interview without being asked about his father.

"If you ask anybody that has had a dad play ahead of them, of course, it gets tiring," said Dylan, listed at 5-foot-11, 198 pounds. "You have people saying 'You're only here because of your dad,' or they're trying to compare you to your dad. I want to be a separate player from him. I take his advice and his guidance, but I do get tired of (being known as Dale Hunter's son). I want to be my own player."

That won't be easy, especially when the Sabres' coaching staff has fresh memories of personal run-ins with Dale Hunter, that fireball of a center who racked up 1,020 points and 3,565 penalty minutes in 19 NHL seasons with the Quebec Nordiques and Washington Capitals.

Dale Hunter's No. 32 hangs from the MCI Center rafters, but he might be known best for that blindside hit on Pierre Turgeon of the New York Islanders in the 1993 playoffs, drawing a 21-game suspension.

"We battled a lot," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "I told Dylan, 'He knocked me out once. I was coming across the blue line and passed the puck behind my back. He caught me and I woke up in the dressing room.' He was a dirty, mean player, but I had a lot of respect for the way he played."

Ruff said he sees Dale Hunter in Dylan -- not so much the nastiness, but the guile.

"A lot of mannerisms remind me of his dad, kind of the way he skates and the fact he's a real smart player," Ruff said. "He really thinks the game well."

Dylan Hunter insisted he wouldn't be discouraged if he didn't make the Amerks roster and returns to the Knights. As one who knows him might expect, he said the experience of an NHL camp would only galvanize his desire.

"It's up to them and what they want to do," Hunter said. "But if I go back I'll work 10 times harder and hopefully impress them enough to get a spot next year."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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