Think back to the early 1980s on Vancouver Island. The Victoria Cougars were a powerhouse, winning a Western Hockey League championship in 1981 and packing Memorial Arena.
But the Cougars became perennial West Division bottom-feeders from 19. Crowds at Memorial Arena sagged below 1,000, and the franchise's fortunes only improved after it relocated to Prince George.
But that was then, and this is now.
Today, many Canadian Hockey League clubs face the much nicer problem of trying to accommodate rising attendance in the stylish surroundings that modern fans expect.
For instance, in the fall of 2006 the OHL's Oshawa Generals opened the brand-new, 5,500-seat General Motors Centre, which cost $45 million to build, and the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds debuted the 5,000-seat Steelback Centre ($25 million). The Windsor Spitfires and the QMJHL's Shawinigan Cataractes will move into new facilities in 2008.
From coast to coast, it's also clear that league expansion into large urban centres is a great way to grow major junior hockey, even if those cities already have NHL teams.
The Halifax Mooseheads became Atlantic Canada's first Major Junior club in 1994-95, and their attendance typically ranks among the QMJHL's best.
Maritimers further showed their appreciation for Major Junior talent by coming out to the 2003 IIHF World Junior Championship in record numbers (242,173).
That record would stand until the 2006 World Juniors in British Columbia, where total attendance was 374,353, shattering Halifax’s mark.
All of Canada’s round robin games during the tournament were played at the Pacific Coliseum, home of the Vancouver Giants. The G-Men rate as one of major junior's biggest success stories since entering the WHL in 2001, consistently finishing in the top five in the WHL in attendance.
Of course, their most visible achievement was defeating Medicine Hat for the 2007 MasterCard Memorial Cup on home ice, led by tournament MVP and current Team Canada captain Milan Lucic.
But don't forget that Vancouver also successfully put on the 2005 CHL Top Prospects Game, and will have the honour of hosting Game 8 of the Canada/Russia Super Series.
It's a great lead-up to hosting the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, where CHL graduates will fill out Team Canada's roster.
In neighbouring Alberta, the Calgary Hitmen set an average attendance record of 10,062 and a CHL single-season record of 362,227 during the 2004-05 NHL lockout, attracting fans to the Pengrowth Saddledome, a building they share with their city’s NHL franchise – the Flames.
Those numbers set the bar high for the expansion Edmonton Oil Kings, who will kick off their inaugural WHL campaign on September 20 versus Kootenay at Rexall Place, home of the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers.
At the same time, though, major junior is thriving in smaller towns, from Red Deer, Alberta to Kitchener, Ontario, and there's little reason to fear that the CHL will ever get too far away from the grassroots level.
Even smaller towns continue to produce some great young Canadian talent – just look at the Super Series roster, which includes the likes of Logan Pyett (Milestone, Saskatchewan: population 286) and Zac Boychuk and Dana Tyrell (Airdrie, Alberta: population 28,927).
The bottom line is that Canadians are hungry for major junior hockey, and they're only getting hungrier.
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Lisa Dornan Director, Communications Hockey Canada 403-777-4557 / 403-510-7046 (mobile) firstname.lastname@example.org
Francis Dupont Manager, Media Relations/Communications Hockey Canada 403-777-4564 email@example.com
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