Top prospects small fish in T.O.?

RYAN PYETTE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:57 AM ET

TORONTO -- Brian Burke made another proclamation.

Not on his Toronto Maple Leafs and their chances of making the playoffs.

This time, it was the odds of the Canadian Hockey League's top prospects game selling out cavernous Air Canada Centre on Jan. 19 in a city that has supported junior hockey the way Phoenix embraces the NHL.

"We'll fill it," the Leafs GM said.

That's the goal, said Canadian Hockey League president and OHL commissioner David Branch. He believes major junior hockey has a shot at significant inroads in Canada's biggest city and the 2010-11 season is vital to test that theory.

The prospects game will be played two weeks after the world junior tournament in nearby Buffalo. The Memorial Cup is slated for Mississauga's Hershey Centre in May.

"There's a whole strategy in place," Branch said. "We have a tremendous game and we get a phenomenal following in places like Windsor, Kitchener and London. We know there are a lot of junior hockey fans in Toronto. With the events we are offering in the area this year, it's a great opportunity for them to come out and enjoy our sport."

It's been a question in Toronto for years: Is this a Leaf town or a hockey town?

"I think it's a hockey town," Burke said. "The problem with the (American Hockey League) Marlies, Brampton and Mississauga is (media) coverage. You open a paper and there's three pages of the Leafs and you have to go pretty far back and look around for those other (junior hockey) stories."

The Leafs drive hockey here and the CHL is trying to tap into that support.

Don Cherry and Bobby Orr have become synonymous with the top prospects event as celebrity coaches, but there's a chance the men running the bench at the ACC will be legendary Leafs.

"The announcement of who's involved is still to come," Branch said, "but the Leafs have a rich history and we'd be remiss if we didn't . . . tap into that."

Burke indicated he wouldn't ask the CHL to replace Cherry and Orr with former Leafs, which include Kingston Frontenacs coach Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark.

"It's the CHL's event," said Burke. "If they want (Cherry and Orr), it's up to them. We're here to support them."

The top prospects game features 40 NHL draft eligible players who pro scouts want to see the most. It was, Branch said, a brainchild of Burke when he worked in the NHL office.

There is risk to the players. Last year, Peterborough's Austin Watson hurt his ankle while blocking a shot and two years ago in Oshawa, NHL top pick John Tavares of the London Knights suffered a shoulder injury after taking a hit from Buffalo Sabres first-rounder Zack Kassian, now with the Windsor Spitfires.

"It's never been an all-star game and (today's game compared to the first one 16 years ago), it's like watching thoroughbreds instead of Shetland ponies," Burke said.

The OHL cancelled its all-star game this year in part because of duplication with the top prospects event. Ticket packages for the ACC game are available Friday through Ticketmaster. They start at $30.

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