No new expansion plans for CHL, Branch says

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:23 AM ET

There will be no further Canadian Hockey League expansion in the near future, CHL president and Ontario Hockey League commissioner Dave Branch says.

"There's been every evidence you have to respect the talent pool," Branch said yesterday. "There is plenty of evidence in about expansions," he added, without mentioning the National Hockey League.

"We have a very sophisticated fan base. You can't fool them."

Canadian major junior hockey will expand by two to 58 when St. John's, Nfld., and Saint John, N.B., enter.

"The OHL went through an aggressive period in the early 1990s and when we got to 20, we said, 'Whoa.' I'm always amazed when I watch Sidney Crosby and how some of the other players on Rimouski do the same things. It's the same with the Knights. You see Brandon Prust doing the things Corey Perry tries. It's great for development."

In other words, junior hockey is going to take care not to water down the product.

Branch said each Memorial Cup has a flavour, but that this one has one with a concentrated tang. He felt it has turned out to be a beneficiary of the NHL lockout and that there never have been so many marquee players.

"The great thing about Memorial Cups is they take on the flavour of a region," he said. "This tournament is blessed with not just the best club teams, but also some of the best junior players in the world, not an element we have every year. This tournament brings star flavour. Last time we had a superstar was in 1990 with Eric Lindros. Here, there's Sidney Crosby, Perry, Shea Weber, Mark Mancari."

Branch admitted some early concern over the negativity surrounding the NHL lockout.

"Every time you picked up the paper or turned on the TV, you got a no-hockey message.

"Once there was a finality to the NHL situation, in a short period we started to see the spotlight change, and we managed to get the best exposure possible heading into (the Memorial Cup)."

Branch felt the new fans of junior hockey will be retained once the NHL returns to action and that junior hockey, now truly coast-to-coast, will focus on that in its marketing.

"There's no other league like us," he said.

With some teams experiencing an enormous fan following and large gate receipts -- such as the Knights and the Ottawa 67's -- he was asked whether there is a danger the league could be facing a situation of haves and have-nots.

"Yes, it is a challenge," he said. "We have to make sure Owen Sound can compete with London and the like. . . . It's a whole new age."


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