Small markets on junior's biggest stage

RYAN PYETTE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:14 AM ET

Play OHL hockey in little Owen Sound and, like the fictional bar from Cheers, nearly everyone in town knows your name.

Win a Western Hockey League title in tiny Cranbrook, B.C., and the Kootenay Ice can relate to how you'll receive more handshakes than Stephen Harper on the campaign trail.

David Branch understands the significance of having two of major junior hockey's smallest centres play for the Memorial Cup, which starts Friday at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga, one of the league's biggest markets.

The Canadian Hockey League president and OHL commissioner grew up in Bathurst, N.B. (pop. 14,000) -- not much smaller than the communities where the OHL champion Attack and WHL-winning Ice play.

"I wish everyone at least once could experience what it's like to win a championship (in a small town)," Branch said. "I went to Owen Sound early (last Thursday for Game 6 of the OHL final against Mississauga) and drove around town so I get a feeling for the excitement."

Junior hockey went through a stretch where big centres -- Vancouver, Calgary, London, Windsor, Kitchener and Quebec City -- dominated the headlines.

But not at this moment, and not traditionally.

"We have 60 teams, 51 of which are in Canada, and 40 are in places where our league is the No. 1 sport-entertainment option in that community," Branch said. "All our markets are important but we never lose sight of how ingrained we are into the fabric of a lot of these smaller communities.

"Last year, we had a work group look at big market vs. small market to see if we needed to bridge a gap there and their conclusion was there was no problem. Every team has to maximize their own strengths."

The irony now is small-market Owen Sound and Kootenay are on the big stage in Mississauga, where the CHL is trying to make inroads in a Leafs-dominated region.

It's the Hoosiers vs. the Who's That? The host Majors are hardly known outside their own building, which is often no more than half-full. Tickets are a tough sell and a wild Game 7 crowd in the OHL final was boosted by Owen Sound faithful.

"We know there are challenges," Branch said, "and it's not going to take a flip of the switch. But we're hoping this is a spark to grow our game in the GTA.
"I have never been concerned about (a Cup flop in Missy). I know the people behind the tournament (led by Majors and Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk) and I saw (GM and coach) Dave Cameron's plan and was confident in it. This is, hopefully, a beginning."

Start small, dream big. That's junior hockey.

SAINT JOHN SEA DOGS

The journey: First-time Quebec champs. 58-7-1-2, 119 points. Beat Gatineau in six-game final, including two double OTs. 10-0 road record in playoffs; 4-0 in overtime.

Cup history: None. New Brunswick expansion franchise in 2005. Get used to them. Set up for another run after losing 2012 Cup hosting bid to Shawinigan.
The brass: Former Red Wings forward and Columbus coach Gerard Gallant won 111 games in two years as Dogs bench boss.

Star power: F Jonathan Huberdeau climbed NHL draft rankings with 105-point season and 16-goal, 30-point playoff ... Caps' Russian third-rounder Stanislav Galiev had 27 points in 19 playoff games ... Strathroy, Ont., native D Nathan Beaulieu's dad is new Sarnia Sting coach Jacques Beaulieu and grew up around the 2005 champ London Knights.

Watch for: Dogs G Jacob De Serres, formerly of Brandon, shelled for nine goals in last year's Cup final against Windsor.

Outlook: Tog Dogs enter as favourites and have shot at matching Windsor's two-year Cup run.

MISSISSAUGA ST. MICHAEL'S MAJORS

The journey: Host team. 53-13-0-2, 108 points. Lost OHL final in OT in Game 7 on home ice to Owen Sound.

Cup history: None in re-born era under Eugene Melnyk, but former school-run Toronto team put its name on the Cup four times, most recently in 1961.
The brass: GM and head coach Dave Cameron oversaw Canada's silver medal squad at the world juniors in Buffalo.

Star power: F Justin Shugg aims to become second player in history with three straight Memorial Cup titles (with Windsor in 2009 and '10). Robert Savard won back-to-back with Cornwall (1980-81) before winning with Kitchener ('82) ... F Devante Smith-Pelly led the way with 15 playoff goals ... L.A. Kings' prospect Max Kitsyn (10 post-season goals) talented addition from Russia after world juniors.

Watch for: G J.P. Anderson needs to make the big save.

Outlook: If deep Majors don't win, it'll be a long summer for Cameron and captain Casey Cizikas after world junior collapse and OHL title loss.

OWEN SOUND ATTACK

The journey: First-time OHL champs. 46-17-1-4, 97 points. Only team in three years to beat Windsor in a playoff series, then topped Majors on rookie Jarrod Maidens' overtime winner in Game 7 of OHL final.

Cup history: None since winning in 1986 when franchise was in Guelph, called the Platers and current Habs coach Jacques Martin ran the show.

The brass: OHL coach of the year Mark Reeds played for Peterborough dynasty in late 1970s. GM Dale DeGray part of Oshawa's Cup finalist in 1983.

Star power: Colorado first-rounder Joey Hishon had 87 points in 50 regular-season games and 24 more in the post-season ... OHL playoff MVP Robby Mignardi had 15 goals and 24 points in stellar post-season run ... Captain and Florida pick Garrett Wilson (11 goals) and Leafs D prospect Jesse Blacker (16 points) had solid playoff performances.

Watch for: Rotating goalie carousel. Used three stoppers in playoffs. NHL draft-eligible Jordan Binnington, New York Rangers prospect Scott Stajcer and Tampa draft pick Michael Zador shared crease due to illness, injury and performance. Youngster Binnington in for the playoff finale.

Outlook: OHL's smallest market celebrated playoff title with parade back to the Harry Lumley Bayshore Community Centre after Game 7 in Mississauga. They'd love to repeat the scene, but it won't be easy.

KOOTENAY ICE

The journey: Tiny Cranbrook, B.C.-based WHL champs finished fourth in Eastern Conference with 46-21-1-4 record and 97 points. Knocked off Brayden Schenn's 56-win Saskatoon Blades in second-round sweep and beat favoured Portland in five-game WHL final.

Cup history: 0-3 at Halifax in 2000. Captured first Cup title with 6-3 win over Victoriaville at Guelph in 2002.

The brass: Ice GM Jeff Chynoweth's late dad Ed founded the Ice franchise (originally in Edmonton) and was former Canadian Hockey League and WHL president. Kris Knoblauch is a rookie head coach.

Star power: Canadian world junior F Cody Eakin, picked up in eight-for-one deal with Swift Current, had 27 playoff points ... So did Flames third-rounder Max Reinhart (son of former NHLer Paul), big Sabres D pick and captain Brayden McNabb and overage scorer Matt Fraser  ... Don't forget incredibly named overage F Steele Boomer, who chipped in nine playoff points.

Watch for: Finally healthy 6-foot-5 G Nathan Lieuwen, playoff MVP with a 2.24 GAA and .923 save percentage, suffered a concussion in car rollover when he was 16.

Outlook: Heavy underdogs once again.

FAMOUS ROOTS

(Celebrities who hail from, or live in, the four cities left in the Memorial Cup chase)

Mississauga, Ont.: Don Cherry, 1972 Summit Series hero Paul Henderson, Mayor (Hurricane) Hazel McCallion, jazz legend Oscar Peterson, comedian Mike Bullard.

Owen Sound, Ont: Flying ace Billy Bishop, artist Tom Thomson, legendary goalie Harry Lumley, hall of famer Hap Day, Victoria Cross recipient Thomas William Holmes, TV personalities Heather Hiscox and Cheryl Hickey.

Kootenay (Cranbrook, B.C.): Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, Edmonton Oilers coach Tom Renney, ex-Ottawa Senators coach Cory Clouston, ex-NHLer Scott Niedermayer, 2008 Olympic gold medal eights rower Ben Rutledge.

Saint John, N.B.: Musician Stompin' Tom Connors, infamous American traitor Benedict Arnold, movie mogul Louis B. Mayer and actor Donald Sutherland.


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