Junior exposure could boost CHL

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:57 AM ET

For two weeks, a high-energy junior tournament filled a nation starved of its beloved pro game.

Was it a blip, or could a locked-out National Hockey League lure even more fans to the Canadian junior brand for the balance of 2005? Attendance among teams in Ontario, Quebec and Western Canada has gone up only marginally since the NHL went dark and it's likely that regional junior game telecasts have gained a bit of popularity. Will the party in Grand Forks change that?

"The overall fan interest will increase, which I think means many different things," CHL president Dave Branch said yesterday. "It's tremendous for player development, player recruitment and for (hockey) families to understand the programs that are offered across the country.

"When you add the interest in Canada because there was no NHL, it will only serve as a good kick-start to the final part of our season, the prospects game in Vancouver and the (Memorial Cup) playoffs. It's an exciting time."

TSN reported 3.2 million viewers for Canada's gold medal win over Russia on Tuesday. With no NHL on the horizon, someone will suggest moving more key junior games to prime time next year.

NHLERS HELPED NATS

The lockout was a huge advantage for the Canadian team, freeing Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins among others. He used his NHL experience to nail tournament MVP honours.

"Bergeron really bought into the system," Canadian captain Michael Richards of the Kitchener Rangers said. "That just showed that Canadian players will put their egos aside and do what it takes to win."

Canada now owns the six major global hockey titles for men and women simultaneously, after the Open Ice summit in 1999 questioned the state of our game.

"There wasn't doom and gloom on our part, because we still had a really good feel for it," Branch said. "But the climate got everyone to open their minds to change. One of the things about hockey is that we can be very traditional. If nothing else, it brought focus to some needs and things we could challenge ourselves on. But I really feel that a lot of those things were happening before.

"That said, now that we're, shall we say, on top of our game, we're now challenging ourselves once again on how we can effect some change to the Canadian development model. Those discussions have started with Hockey Canada, the CHL and others."


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