Buzzing The Net - Junior Hockey

Branch would like to open up the Memorial Cup; USHL says ‘any time you’re ready’The market pushes the product and suffice to say, Canadian Hockey League president David Branch and his fellow major junior solons believe something needs to be done to spice up the MasterCard Memorial Cup.

One cannot take any credit for stirring up a hornet's nest of opinions about some from of interleague play being introduced in the CHL — it was Dr. Georges Larivière's idea! — but it seems to have struck a chord with many of junior hockey cognoscenti. You might also remember that at last spring's MasterCard Memorial Cup, Damien Cox wrote of the tournament being expanded in order to provide a bigger TV property for the CHL's TV partner, Rogers Sportsnet, "which is desirous of growing all of its properties as part of its burgeoning turf war with TSN."

Tuesday, in an interview with Guy Flaming and Dean Millard of the Team 1260 in Edmonton, who've been hitting the interleague drum hard, Branch said that's been on the table.

"The concept of a junior league in the United States, USA marketplace, that's something that we should look at — have discussed, quite frankly, informally. That day may come where we have a true North American championship and/or, we've also discussed at the CHL level bringing over a European club team champion to play in the Memorial Cup. Our world is getting smaller.

"The other window is in the preseason where there's a lot of challenges to overcome. Maybe at the end of the season is a time where we can bring in some new partners to create some exciting opportunities."
(The Pipeline Show, audio)

And in one of those kismet occurrences that make life worth living, prior to that interview taking place, USHL commissioner Skip Prince sent an anytime-you're-ready open letter aimed at the CHL. It wasn't necessarily so much about reforming the Memorial Cup as it was about using self-deprecating humour to take a hammer to any northern stereotypes of the league.

Which is to say Prince starts off talking about his "little house league south of the border, full of bespectacled college geeks without game, sending the occasional emaciated rocket scientist to a Division III college" and just warms to the point.

"You guys talked about playing the Memorial Cup winner. Sure. Ready to do it. It would provide some great hockey.

"What it won't do is decide anything. It will accentuate just how different our systems are — how differently we build our rosters, how little trading we do, how no USHL Member Club 'bigs up' for a Clark Cup run … and how many great NHL draftees and signees play for the CHL, while their USHL counterparts are pursuing an NCAA championship and won't be there. That's not to say it won't be a battle, and I like our chances. In any case, I'm open to anything that promotes and develops the game.

"But I'll take our system, and what it delivers — to the NHL, to college, and to the game of hockey — 100 times out of 100. That one's already settled." (Coming Down The Pipe!)

The appetite is definitely there and the safest conclusion one can draw is that the CHL is trying to cast off the closed-shop mentality, at long last. Regular-season interleague play is a little too pipe-dreamy. From September to March, the CHL is still largely a local game built upon intensely local followings. A WHL team isn't going to get a big windfall from playing the Tigres instead of the Tigers on a Wednesday night in January.

There does seem to be more potential with repositioning the Memorial Cup, as Branch noted with his "end of the season" comment. That sort of brings this around to the fact the CHL and USHL each declined to send a team to the ongoing World Junior Club Championship in Omsk, Russia. The Alberta Junior Hockey League's Fort McMurray Oil Barons ultimately represented Canada and have given a game effort, although they're out of gold-medal contention after a close 3-2 loss to Sweden's Mälmo Redhawks today. There were probably good reasons to stay out of it — one can only presume the defending Memorial Cup champion Saint John Sea Dogs, who have 16 players slated to head to NHL camps and whose regular season starts next week, were none too hot on the idea of schlepping to Russia and none of their players' NHL organizations would be, either. That concern duly noted, though, Bruce Peter noted that it's a bit glaring the CHL was not involved:

The lack of any Canadian Hockey League teams (QMJHL, OHL, WHL) is a real disappointment for the organizers. There are logistical concerns for sure, but concerns about the quality of play seem, well, out of line. Russian junior Select teams take on Canadian All-Star teams every November in Canada before sellout crowds in the Subway Super Series, and for the first time, the Russian Selects won that series last fall. The team was composed almost entirely of MHL players, with a few ringers from CHL teams added depending on the location of the games. The Russian team has to travel from Atlantic Canada right across the country to British Columbia within a two week time span to play six games, hardly an easy journey to make. I think some reciprocity should be in order. (Puck Worlds, Aug. 29)

That tournament seems like a worthwhile endeavour. The timing is poor, though. The public appetite is to watch a major junior hockey championship is the greatest in May — and adding a European or U.S. challenger would add some much needed flavour.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at neatesager@yahoo.ca and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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