Seats were short some seats

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 11:29 AM ET

The jury remains out on university hockey as a marquee sport.

The defending OUA champion Western Mustangs opened their season last night against the Waterloo Warriors at the John Labatt Centre in off-Broadway fashion before a gathering announced as 1,550.

While that's far too large for a jury, it's far too small in Western planning.

Athletic director Mike Lysko was of two minds. The crowd was triple what would have turned up at Thompson arena on campus and was a money-maker.

But it was smaller than he'd hoped for.

"You have to keep in mind that for all intents and purposes, this is a brand new sports property; it hasn't been promoted in 20 years," Lysko said after the Mustangs won 6-2. "At least we have a baseline we can build on."

Bottoms in the seats is where the decision will be made on a level of hockey that has been making noises about stepping out of anonymity. That is where it will be decided and, in the growing competitiveness of the college game, whether it is moving closer to mainstream sports entertainment.

There is no doubt it has made long strides in recent years, largely due to the enhanced education program introduced by the Ontario Hockey League six years ago. It's a pretty good deal, as a scan of the Mustangs and Waterloo rosters indicates.

All the Mustangs played major junior and about half of Waterloo's players have seen action at the top junior level.

The original education package, mandatory for all OHL teams, called for first-round picks to be eligible for tuition, books and accommodation for each junior year played, with the junior team picking up the tab. Draft picks two through five are guaranteed tuition and books and sixth-rounders and lower a year's tuition for each year in the league.

Many OHL teams sweeten the pot.

"There are some good deals," Mustangs centre Chris Rowan said. "The league has got so much better, so much more competitive than it used to be," the former Brampton Battalion centre added.

Something close to parity is a major plus in any marketing thrust. Mustangs head coach Clarke Singer says 10-1 laughers are a thing of the past, the result of more intense coaching and recruiting.

"When I started, there weren't many full-time coaches in the OUA," Singer said. "Now, almost everyone has them and even some assistants, too."

Waterloo coach Chris Bourque, a high school math teacher on leave of absence, is a full-timer who made his debut as a head coach.

Selling the game would be no problem if Bourque could get one kid who attended his Cole Harbour, N.S., hockey school. That would be Sidney Crosby, the Cole Harbour wunderkind now with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"It was a school for 15- and 16-year-olds and Sidney came through when he was 13," Bourque said. "You could see the talent then."

Bourque spoke of players who opted for education over professional hockey.

"There are players in our league who have pro opportunities but are coming to the CIS to take advantage of the educational aspect," he said.

Bourque touched on collegiate hockey's familiar mantra: If fans see it once, they'll be back.

First, they've got to see it.

"Our players aren't known yet; we haven't earned that right," former sports marketing guru and Canadian Football League commissioner Lysko said. "We'll continue to grow, to ramp up. It's a sports property still in the development process."

Next test is next Thursday, with Brock Badgers in.


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