Memorable

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:59 AM ET

Despite gaping holes in the sports landscape these days, Canadians are having a hard time getting into these World Hockey Championships.

Oh sure, TSN has every reason to be pleased as punch about the fact ratings are up 110% from a year ago.

But the reality is despite a year simmering without the NHL, hockey fans aren't finding it easy to warm up to the game's B-stars in a tourney traditionally dwarfed by the NHL's war of attrition.

Not until Canada appears in the semifinals or final will the juices really start flowing again. If this ragamuffin crew can even get that far.

To this point the event shown in more than 150 million homes worldwide just hasn't re-generated interest in hockey's birthplace the way many expected.

All that will change in 10 days.

It is then four of the country's most intriguing junior clubs will descend on London, Ont. for a Memorial Cup tourney that will capture the country's attention like never before.

Headlining the nine-day event will be the game's marquee prospect, Sidney Crosby, who led the Rimouski Oceanic to a recent 35-game winning streak that spilled into a 12-1 playoff run that wrapped up with a sweep over Halifax last night. The Oceanic, which lost 38 games in a row just two years ago, now has one loss in its last 41 games.

Proving once again he's capable of doing everything except grow a playoff beard, Crosby scored 14 goals and 31 points in 13 games including a goal last night to lead a high-powered French squad that would be the favourite any other year.

Instead, when a record number of hockey-starved media types flock to the southern Ontario hockey hotbed, the Oceanic will play second fiddle to the host Knights, who opened the season by setting a record 31 games without a loss.

Led by former NHL pests Mark and Dale Hunter, the Knights boast more than a half-dozen top-notch prospects including OHL MVP Corey Perry, who has averaged more than two points a game all year long. Just recently, Don Cherry went public with suggestions Perry could very well be a better NHLer than Crosby.

As if that showdown won't be interesting enough, the CHL's all-time winningest coach, Brian Kilrea, will lead his Ottawa 67's into the fray with an eye on proving anything can happen at the four-team tourney as it did in 1999, when his club upset Calgary to claim junior supremacy. The 67's handed the Knights their first home loss since Dec. 12 by evening their OHL final series 1-1 Sunday.

None of this is to mention the representative from the WHL, a league that has claimed three of the last four Memorial Cups.

"I guess we'll just come in and kick down with our no-name team and see what happens," joked Western Hockey League president Ron Robison, in Brandon to see the defending national champs from Kelowna fall 3-2 last night, cutting their series lead to 2-1. "It has all the ingredients of being one of the most successful tournaments ever."

With every game at the new, 9,000-seat John Labbatt Centre sold out, Robison said he's talked to sponsors willing to spend upwards of $1,000 a ticket to the big games.

"This could be an even bigger ticket than the world juniors in Vancouver next year," said Robison.

"Our TV numbers the last few years have been great but we'll certainly set new records as the interest will be over the top. It couldn't be better in terms of the promotion of our product."

Something hockey desperately needs in Canada right about now.


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