London still has shot at tourney

JIM CRESSMAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:47 AM ET

London should keep its game plan ready.

That's from David Branch, commissioner of the Ontario Hockey League and president of the Canadian Hockey League.

The world junior hockey championship will return to Canada in 2008 or 2009, following next year's tournament in Vancouver. The International Ice Hockey Federation is anxious to be in Canada again as soon as possible after the success of the 2005 event in Grand Forks, N.D.

Now, the last time anyone checked, Grand Forks was in the United States. But with the town of 50,000 only an hour's drive from the U.S.-Canada border, then another hour to Winnipeg, it was as if this tournament was in Canada.

Canadian fans are the reason the event set the second-highest attendance mark in tournament history, drawing 195,771, second only to the 242,173 in 2003 in Halifax.

Big crowds mean big bucks for Hockey Canada, the CHL and the IIHF.

A joint London-Kitchener bid for the 2006 championship was unsuccessful when Hockey Canada awarded it to Vancouver. Many felt that signalled a shift to NHL markets but Branch, a member of the site selection committee, said that is not the case.

He said the opportunities will still be there for the Londons and the Kitcheners of this country.

"We can never lose sight of who we really are and who we represent, and the passion of the Canadian hockey fan came through loud and clear at this event," he said.

"The Canadian fans who came down from largely the Winnipeg area made this tournament so very special, along obviously with the performance of the team."

The three largest crowds were for games involving Canada and the 11,700-seat Ralph Engelstad Arena was a sea of red for the gold-medal game against Russia.

Those numbers are never seen when the tournament is in Europe, and previous world juniors in the U.S. were flops.

"It's that passion that is represented in all forms, sizes and shapes of communities and we have a real sense of obligation that we can never lose sight of who we really are," Branch said.

"Vancouver will bear out that we can work in a major metropolitan area but, that said, the majority of the centres in the country that are passionate hockey fans aren't communities that are that size and I look forward to the opportunity to see us go to centres that aren't quite as large."

Branch said it's important for Hockey Canada to remember the grassroots and to reward those centres.

"Without question and the Canadian Hockey League too is such a big part of this program and that's always one of our challenges, to never lose sight of who we really are and we're proud of the fact that we stretch from one side of this country to the other and understand where our passionate fans really are," he said.

Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson meets with IIHF president Rene Fasel this month in Russia and the world junior tournament's return to Canada is on the agenda

"We had a brief discussion with Rene here," Branch said. "He really understands and appreciates once again how the Canadian fan brings the world junior to a whole new level."

Branch said they could have a date in the next six months.

"There are a number of international events on the calendar that you have to work your way around, but you can't get too picky either.

"If it's there for the taking, take it," he said.

Halifax, which has a team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, set the attendance record in a building that holds 10,500, not much more than London's John Labatt Centre.

Halifax turned a profit of almost $4 million, which was shared by Halifax minor hockey, Hockey Nova Scotia, Hockey Canada and the CHL.

"The bar was set in Halifax and you have to get creative," Branch said. "That's always going to be one of the challenges. It's what we've seen through the Memorial Cup process (but) there's many ways you can meet some of those challenges."

Does Branch have any advice for the Londons and the Kitcheners?

"Don't get discouraged," he said. "We have our sense of responsibility to ensure we do not remove this event from the majority of centres that really are our fans."

The world beckons.


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