Fri Aug 26 03:02pm EDT
With all the real problems in the world, a sports team whose fans never get to savour their beloveds capturing the big prize time and again should not hurt that much. We know this, but we also know cold logic doesn't always play into being a sports fan.
That's especially true of the fan experience in major junior hockey, where selling hope is the lifeblood of a league that promotes itself as a place to see the NHL's future stars. Perhaps this less true now that the big league has a salary cap, but there is arguably more reason to be optimistic as a junior hockey fan than as a follower of the big league. Teams turn over their rosters completely every four years, bringing in a new wave of fresh-faced teenaged puck chasers to be a conduit for all those championship dreams.
Come late August, everyone is singing from the same songbook. This quote from Regina Pats defenceman Brandon Underwood, a newcomer to a team aiming for a turnaround after missing the playoffs thrice in succession in the Western Hockey League's Eastern Conference, where eight of 12 teams go on to the post-season, might be the ultimate preseason-optimism quote:
"You can already feel the change. The winds are blowing, as they say. The mentality and the upbeat personality around here is really changing things around. You feel really good going into the dressing room. It's a clean slate. It's a great opportunity for players to show the coaches what you're made of." (Regina Leader-Post)
All of that might be true, which is the kicker. Every team is hopeful in August. Despite all the striving, some CHL teams have been chronically unable to win a championship. As part of the countdown to the season, here's a look at five fanbases who can count themselves as long-suffering. It's not meant in any snarky sense; it's more to point out whom fans of other teams should be happy for if one of this lot ever triumphs. Remember when everyone was happy for Boston Red Sox fans in October 2004? Don't deny it.
New coach-GM Jacques Beaulieu, the last person we would ever play any game of chance against, has remade the Sting into an on-paper favourite in the OHL's Western Conference with his wheeling and dealing this summer.
That would be notable with any team, but it's amplified by the Sting's history. Its ownership of Hockey Hall of Famer Dino Ciccarelli and his brothers have had difficulty building that all-important public trust, which has manifested itself on the ice to the tune of one playoff series win in the past decade. That one win came when they had Steven Stamkos, who's gone on to be a halfway decent NHLer. Now the Sting have a talented core with top NHL draft prospects Alexander Galchenyuk (photo) and Nail Yakupov; the season ahead could make enduring some bad seasons worth it.
4. Regina Pats (WHL)
There is some guilt in including the Pats after the franchise's extended family lost former players Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien earlier this summer. However, there's no ignoring the obvious. Nor should it be overlooked that people who have stood by the Pats really deserve to cheer on a winner.
The Pats are the WHL's oldest and had some powerhouse teams in the 1970s, even winning the Memorial Cup in '74. However, under owners Russ and Diane Parker, triumphs have been a few and far between. Regina hasn't reached the league semifinal since 1993, before some current players were born. In 2009-10, the Pats had the rare distinction of having the CHL player of the year, current Edmonton Oilers right wing Jordan Eberle, while missing the playoffs. If second-year GM Chad Lang and first-year coach Pat Conacher turn it around any time soon, Jonah Keri will have to write a book about them.
3. Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)
According to Bill Simmons, just being a below-average to mediocre team doesn't count: " ... it's not enough to lose. You need to have your guts wrenched a few times."
That bumps Fronts fans down the list. Their dilemma isn't having seen championships just slip through the team's collective grasp. It's more about supporting a team which has seldom been in contention over its 38-year history, having last won a playoff series in 1998. The current struggles probably start from the top with owner Doug Springer, who bought the team not long after that last run all the way to the second round. It does predate him, though. The only team banner in the K-Rock Centre commemorates a reason-season division title in 1995, and that team ended up losing its first playoff series.
Kingston fans have been known to grumble about the team's management, with more than a little justification. However, that doesn't mean they don't have the players' backs. Scratch a former Frontenac and you'll likely hear that he enjoyed the city and its people.
2. Saskatoon Blades (WHL)
Regina and Saskatoon compete for everything, so why should this list be any different? Blades fans can go bummer-for-bummer with anyone, since its 45-season championship drought is the longest in major junior hockey. Some great players — Hall of Famer Bernie Federko, Toronto Maple Leafs hero Wendel Clark — have come through Toon Town, but that hasn't been enough.
The Blades have lost in the Western league's championship series five times and had eight first-place teams. They also lost a Memorial Cup final in 1989 on an overtime goal to provincial rival Swift Current. Last season, they dominated the WHL regular season, with world junior tournament MVP Brayden Schenn lighting it up in the second half of the season. Whatever the reason, they crashed out four consecutive in the second round against eventual league champion Kootenay.
1. Shawinigan Cataractes (QMJHL)
This season's MasterCard Memorial Cup host team has the distinction of being the only charter member of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League which has continuously operated in its original city — and they've yet to have a championship parade through former prime minister Jean Chrétien's stamping ground. There have been good teams in the Quebec city, where the Cataractes have won their division during the regular season seven times.
The way events played out in 2008-09 are also enough for Cataractes fans to qualify as tortured. Shawinigan fought off elimination twice in the President's Cup final against division rival Drummondville, then coached by current Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Guy Boucher, only to be edged 3-2 in Game 7. Compounding the hurt was the fact the loss meant the Cataractes had missed out going to the MasterCard Memorial Cup twice in a year, since they lost the bid to host it to the Rimouski Océanic.
Some believe that after seeing Rimouski named host of the 2009 Cup, there was a conspiracy/sentiment to make sure the Cataractes would host this season's championship. There's no way to prove that, of course. It's glib to view it this way, but that might go to show hope is never far from being fulfilled.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports . Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.