Junior hockey as big as ever

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:04 AM ET

To a disinterested party, the Ontario Hockey League championship might appear as a glorified exhibition series.

After all, the London Knights and Ottawa 67's begin the best-of-seven OHL final tomorrow night safe in the knowledge they'll both be advancing to the Memorial Cup championship, win or lose.

Just don't suggest that it's going to be a series of "friendlies" in either London or Ottawa, where the hunger and passion for a league title runs deep.

London has been the dominant team in all of Canadian hockey this year, perhaps the classiest junior outfit since those great Montreal Junior Canadiens teams of the late 1960s.

Early on, they set the tone for their season by going undefeated in their first 31 games, a junior hockey record. They finished the season with only seven losses in 68 games and have lost only once in 13 games in the playoffs.

The 67's, on the other hand, were not even a certainty to make the playoffs until March, but their 70-year-old Hockey Hall of Fame coach and general manager, Brian Kilrea, again worked his magic late in the season.

The 67's finished the season with only one loss in their final eight games, then dismissed Barrie and Sudbury, each in six games. Then they shocked the favoured Peterborough Petes by sweeping them in four in the East final.

BY SURPRISE

"We've been able to take a few teams by surprise," Kilrea said. "We've managed to win three series so far as the underdog and in this one, we'll be the underdog of all time."

"This may have been Brian's best coaching job ever," OHL commissioner Dave Branch said yesterday. "Even as late as March, making the playoffs was in jeopardy, yet here he is. It will be an outstanding final."

While this has been a wasted winter for NHL hockey, it has been anything but that at the junior level. With the Knights and 67's leading the way, the OHL set a variety of attendance records and there is unprecedented demand for tickets both for the OHL final and the ensuing Memorial Cup.

Yesterday morning, on eBay, a pair of tickets for tomorrow's game with a face value totalling $50 were on auction. After 18 bids, the price was up to $165 but then, suddenly, the tickets were pulled from the auction. Smells like a $200 sale to me.

Memorial Cup tickets are expected to be even tougher to get, especially if Sidney Crosby and the Rimouski Oceanic are in the mix. They're starting their league final series this week against Halifax.

The ticket packages were all sold out by last fall, eight games for just under $300. By the time the puck drops on the opener, selected single-game tickets could be going for only slightly less.

London is to play the Quebec league champs in the opening game of the national championship on May 21 and that game could produce a scalper's dream.

The 67's, playing out of the 9,862-seat Ottawa Civic centre, averaged 9,251 fans per game this season, 314,542 overall, to eclipse their own league record set three years ago. London, playing out of the new John Labatt Centre, with 9,090 seats, averaged 9,038 for the regular season and hasn't played to an empty seat in months.

The OHL itself played to a record 2.69 million, with 16 of its 20 member clubs experiencing increases at the gate.

And now the field has been reduced to two survivors, but neither team is looking beyond the OHL title. Not yet.

"That's what we've talked about all year in the dressing room," Corey Perry said after his Knights beat Kitchener to advance to the final.

"We didn't want to go in the back door. Our goal is to win the OHL championship. We want to go in the front door."

While the Knights are clearly the powerhouse in this series, the 67's have history on their side. In 40 years, the Knights have been to the final only three times and have yet to win it.

The 67's will be making their 10th trip to the final in 38 years, having won the title three times, all under Kilrea's tenure.

"As a hockey guy, these are the opportunities that you cherish," Kilrea said. "I can't wait."

Neither can a hockey-starved Canadian public.


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