Junior achievement in CHL

RYAN PYETTE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:55 AM ET

Close to nine million fans walked through Canadian Hockey League turnstiles last year.

That's more than the combined attendance of all six Canadian NHL teams in any given season.

And the current big three -- Patrick Roy-led Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL, the Flames-owned Calgary Hitmen of the WHL and Dale and Mark Hunter's London Knights in the OHL -- have crowd counts that challenge lower-tier clubs in the big leagues.

But continuity doesn't come easy in major junior hockey, which counts 60 teams coast-to-coast and embraces three regional leagues covering nine provinces and five U.S states.

Just ask CHL president and OHL commissioner David Branch. He oversaw an across-the-board launching of new-look Reebok EDGE jerseys that every club will wear this year, a feat as daunting as capturing the Memorial Cup.

"It was," Branch said, "a bit like herding cats. But we did get every team to launch on the same day like we wanted, which is no small thing in a league as big as our's. I'm very excited about this partnership with Reebok."

Sponsorship. Marketing opportunities. More games on TV. New rinks sprouting up all the time with more amenities and extra seating.

Yet, Branch still believes in the CHL's little guys -- the Swift Currents and Owen Sounds -- can win against larger-centre rivals.

"I always take the example of the (OHL's) Belleville Bulls," Branch said. "There's a small market and not many teams have been more successful than they have the past few years. I have no fear that our smaller centres are able to ice competitive teams."

Large or small, there's big bucks flowing through the entire CHL, still the world's biggest talent provider to the NHL. Until the current collective bargaining agreement ends in two years, the CHL will continue reaping the majority of the multi-million dollar development fees the NHL pays for its player pipeline.

But it isn't easy to stay on top..

The top talent still has options: the junior game or U.S. college debate rages on.

There has been an increase in top American players flocking to the junior ranks recently, but several of those youngsters become one-year-and-done propositions lost to an increasingly cost-conscious NHL.

"It's a marketing challenge if you have turnover that quickly but we've never talked about capping (the number of American players)," Branch said. "There is no 49th parallel in hockey. These kids grow up going to the same tournaments. They know the competition and these (one-and-done) players help raise the level of the league's play.

"That, to me, is always a positive."

Rules enforcement is always an issue.

Fighting remains a part of the game even after former Quebec league goalie Jonathan Roy was ordered to stand trial for an on-ice attack. The QMJHL has added stiffer penalties for fighting and Branch ensured combatants think twice before removing their helmets to scrap.

"We're always looking at the rules of our game and if someone comes up with a better one that will make our players more safe, we'll be the first to institute it," he said.

On the ice, the OHL is raising its four-man referee crews to 70 % of games this season.

"We believe we have tremendous officials in the CHL but of course, we're always looking to improve in that area," Branch said. "We must always remember that hockey is, by many accounts, the hardest sport to officiate because everything happens so fast."

Drug testing of junior players will continue, although not in the off-season.

"We put drug testing in for educational purposes, not in response to any perceived problem and our studies have proved us right in that regard," Branch said. "We aren't out to catch anyone, we want to raise awareness. We always have to remember that they are young and young people make mistakes.

"I think we attract tremendous young men into our league."

And the hockey produced by the CHL is, above all else, usually compelling.

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CHL BY THE NUMBERS

4,678 players drafted by NHL teams since 1969.

99 players selected in the 2009 NHL entry draft.

16 players selected in first round of 2009 entry draft.

14 of last 20 NHL first overall picks are from CHL teams.

93% of Team Canada's world junior team members in last 27 years are from CHL teams.

527 CHL grads attended Canadian universities on $4.1 million worth of CHL scholarships in 2008-09.


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