NHL's return may muffle junior hockey's thunder

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:35 AM ET

It was a year junior hockey won't quickly forget.

It was a year when all the stars aligned to form the perfect constellation allowing junior hockey to shine as brightly as it ever had.

Whether junior hockey will be able to keep the fans it gained last year or whether there will be a lasting impact for new fans remains to be seen now that the National Hockey League is back.

Major junior hockey stepped forward to fill a void created by the NHL lockout last year. While a hockey-starved country still craved professional hockey, the junior brand provided enough sustenance to ease the gnawing pain somewhat.

"The game we did in December when the (London) Knights established the winning streak record, spoke volumes to the thirst Canadians have for hockey," says Rick Briggs-Jude, vice-president, production, for Rogers Sportsnet, the network which broadcast junior hockey games.

"We set an all-time junior record to that point in terms of audience. It was hugely successful. We took a Hockey Central approach with key guys like (hockey analyst Nick) Kypreos, making sure we gave it a significant buzz. We got great feedback.

"In May for the Memorial Cup in London, we wanted to take the same approach. People wanted hockey and there was a national focus on the biggest hockey championship in our country in that given year."

The Memorial Cup final between the Knights and Rimouski Oceanic drew a huge audience of 825,000 viewers on Sportsnet.

But that was without competition from the NHL. Except for the world junior tournament, NHL fans don't necessarily turn into fans of junior hockey. Did fans see enough in junior hockey to bring them back, even with the NHL playing?

Briggs-Jude believes the return of the NHL won't hurt junior hockey. He believes it will help.

"There is such a buzz about hockey that all levels of hockey are benefiting," he says. "There is a renewed interest in the game because of the perceived parity. There is a new interest in all levels of hockey based on the new agreement and the fact they are instituting new rules.

"Since July (when a new collective bargaining agreement was reached), we've seen stronger news audiences because we are reporting a lot more hockey stories, both junior and professional."

The good news for junior hockey was that there were plenty of big stories to fill the space in newspapers and on airwaves vacated by the dormant NHL.

"We can't overlook what the London Knights did for the OHL with their record-setting start," says David Branch, commissioner of the Ontario Hockey League and president of the Canadian Hockey League.

"You can't discount the all-CHL team that won the gold medal (in the world junior tournament in South Dakota.) You can't discount a young man named Sidney Crosby and the record-setting play of the Rimouski Oceanic at the end of the year. And we all know how it came together in London with London hosting and winning the Memorial Cup.

"Those were stories which would have gotten big news coverage whether the NHL was playing or not."

Branch is referring to the Knights record-setting 31-game unbeaten streak at the start the 2004 2005 season. Exposure and publicity was plentiful for the Knights, who picked an opportune time to put together one of the best junior teams and seasons ever.

"It was a great year for the OHL," says Branch, adding attendance rose eight per cent last season, the 17th straight seasonal increase.

"But I'm not going to necessarily draw a line solely to the fact it was the NHL not playing. We saw at the start of the year, every time you picked up a newspaper or turned on a sports newscast, 'No hockey again today.' We had to work extremely hard so that everyone knew that, yes, hockey was being played."

Branch says time will tell how the return of the NHL will affect junior hockey's profile. He isn't about to guarantee the same type of success. One thing continuing this year is the OHL's appearance on Rogers. The network positioned the OHL games on its digital package last year.

"That came a year early," Branch says. "We talked about it in June (2004) and they said they were probably a year away. When the NHL situation occurred, they came to us and said, 'Let's do it now.' They had sold an NHL package and couldn't deliver. They put it in place of the NHL. We signed a two-year deal."

The hope is that hockey fans saw enough during last year's unique season to keep them coming back for more.

But the reality is junior hockey will be hard-pressed to produce the same level of news and interest in the year the NHL returned.


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