The Knights ARE in

Jim Cressman -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 6:25 AM ET

Repeat after me: The London Knights are in the Memorial Cup. One more time, for good measure: The London Knights ARE in the Memorial Cup.

It's interesting how many Knights fans still ask: "What do you think our chances are of getting in Memorial Cup this year?"

Maybe the reality hasn't yet sunk in and if that's the case, they can be excused. After all, the first 39 years London had major junior hockey, there was no trip to the Memorial Cup.

But now, the Memorial Cup IS coming to us.

It all changed last May when the Ontario Hockey League awarded the 2005 tournament to the Knights.

The Knights, celebrating their 40th season, are guaranteed a spot as host team. But should they find themselves winning the league championship, the other finalist will represent the OHL as "host."

The Memorial Cup tournament brings together the champions of the OHL, the Western Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, plus that host team.

The round-robin portion of the event gets underway May 21. The Cup will be hoisted eight days later.

Other than the Knights, it's anybody's guess at this point as to who those other teams will be. That's why each league plays its schedule -- in the OHL's case it's 68 games -- then a series of playoff rounds to determine their champion and Memorial Cup entry.

It's a process that begins in September each year for the 56 CHL teams -- for the Knights, their Cup journey begins Friday night in Kitchener -- and culminates in May.

The eight tournament games (nine if there's a tie-breaker) provide some of the most intense competition you'll see anywhere. And this year, it might be the only hockey around, with the NHL in lockout mode. That will surely focus more attention on the junior ranks.

It's already been suggested that the OHL change its name to Only Hockey Left.

OHL commissioner David Branch, also president of the CHL, says he's been impressed with how the junior game has evolved across the country.

"The competition is extremely healthy and it's an interesting event when you consider the dynamics of all the regions coming together," Branch said.

"I'm always intrigued when you have the Medicine Hat Tigers playing against the Guelph Storm and there's very little difference.

"As big as our country is, it's amazing how our game has evolved to that point. I believe it's reflective of the development."

The Knights are not only the host team, they've been pegged by many as the team to beat in the CHL. They staked their claim to No. 1 in the land last season when they enjoyed a record-setting regular schedule, but their Cup hopes were dashed by Guelph in the Western Conference final series.

The next six months will sort out the contenders from the pretenders in the OHL.

Londoners have to be smacking their lips at the prospect of the Rimouski Oceanic winning the Quebec league title. That would mean an appearance here by Sidney Crosby, who lit up the Q and CHL last season with 54 goals and 135 points in 59 games as a 16-year-old rookie.

He also became Canada's youngest player to score at the world junior championship.

Who knows what he'll do for an encore.

"He pretty well does everything. There's not much more anyone can say about him," said Willy Palov, who covers the QMJHL for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald. "He won a CHL scoring title as a 16-year-old. He'll do that and even more this year for sure."

The Oceanic have been building for this season.

"What they did the season before last -- in advance of the Crosby draft -- was trade almost everybody. They were so awful that last half of the year, you could almost accuse them of tanking it to get that No. 1 pick. Everybody new Crosby was eligible that year and of course they ended up getting him."

The Halifax Mooseheads have also put themselves in a position for a trip to London.

"They had that controversial back-and-forth multi-player trade with Cape Breton spread over the past year and half where it was predetermined the players would go back to Halifax," Palov said.

Halifax took a run at the Quebec crown two years ago. Last year, it was Cape Breton's turn. Now it's Halifax again.

The WHL, coming off a Memorial Cup victory by the host Kelowna Rockets this past May despite the fact the league endured its lowest-scoring season in history, has won three of the past four CHL championships.

"This is not a tremendously strong year for the WHL," said Rob Vanstone, who covers the league for the Regina Leader-Post. "Of course, saying that probably means a banner year for the WHL."

Vanstone says the Calgary Hitmen have as good a chance as anybody from the Western league of taking advantage of those non-stop Calgary to London WestJet flights, especially with centre Ryan Getzlaf back because of the lockout.

He was the final cut of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks camp last year and was pretty much a shoo-in for making it this season.

"We'll have to see what happens if there's a settlement in the NHL, but Calgary is about as good a bet as there is in the WHL," Vanstone said.

The Vancouver Giants, in only their fourth season (but it was enough to be awarded the 2006 world junior championship over bids from the likes of long-time junior cities London and Ottawa), are also primed to challenge.

The Giants have hired junior veteran and NHL-experienced coach Don Hay.

"They have a good team with a coach who has done everything you can do in junior hockey," Vanstone said.

"And they've gone about building that franchise the right way."

Is anybody listening from the previous regime in Mississauga, where the OHL-expansion IceDogs were the laughing stock of junior hockey their first four years?

"The Giants have incrementally improved," Vanstone said. "They've been pretty patient, and hiring Hay sends that message -- 'We're serious now.' "

Let the Cup journey begin.

2005 CUP SCHEDULE

All games at the John Labatt Centre. Times to be announced.

Saturday, May 21: QMJHL champion vs. host team

Sunday, May 22: WHL champion vs. OHL champion

Monday, May 23: Host team vs. WHL champion

Tuesday, May 24: OHL champion vs. QMJHL champion

Wednesday, May 25: WHL champion vs. QMJHL champion

Thursday, May 26: Host team vs. OHL champion

Friday, May 27: Tie-breaker, if necessary

Saturday, May 28: Semifinal

Sunday, May 29: Championship game

CHL TOP 10

The Hockey News top 10 ranking of 2005 Memorial Cup contenders was determined by Canadian Hockey League correspondents Jim Cressman, who covers the Ontario Hockey League for The Free Press, Willy Palov, who covers the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, and Rob Vanstone, who covers the Western Hockey League for the Regina Leader-Post. The panel determined the London Knights are the team to beat this season.

1. London Knights (OHL)

2. Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL)

3. Calgary Hitmen (WHL)

4. Vancouver Giants (WHL)

5. Owen Sound Attack (OHL)

6. Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL)

7. Kitchener Rangers (OHL)

8. Mississauga IceDogs (OHL)

9. Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (WHL)

10. Ottawa 67's (OHL)

MEMORIAL CUP

Saturday: The history

Monday: The economic impact

Tuesday: The festivities

Today: The hockey


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