Halifax puts on a good show. The QMJHL team’s intro song comes from local indie-rock legends Sloan (Money City Maniacs), and the fans all clap along passionately. But as well-backed as the Mooseheads were at the Memorial Cup final, there was still a very vocal minority in stands and the concourse during intermission: the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies diehards, who made the 1,158-mile journey from northwest Quebec to Nova Scotia to cheer on their boys.
Full-throated and armed with dog-bone shaped signs, they traveled in, well, packs. And they were overjoyed when their team won the title. “That’s the Huskies fans – they’re awesome,” said Rouyn-Noranda winger and Montreal Canadiens prospect Joel Teasdale. “They want to be everywhere. Even if we were in the West, they’d have come, and that gives us even more of a push.”
For the second year in a row, a small-market CHL team won the Memorial Cup. Last year, it was fellow Quebec Leaguer Acadie-Bathurst. This year and last, the champs were joined by fellow small-market teams from the WHL: Prince Albert this year, Swift Current the season prior.
If you’re talking about the heart and soul of major junior, you can’t go wrong with these locales, where the players are embraced by the communities and become ambassadors for the towns themselves.
As the CHL continues to wage a legal battle against paying their players wages, these are often the types of franchises cited by the defendants, the ones that wouldn’t be able to survive if the kids had to be paid even minimum wage. Muse about this issue through your own perspective, but it did get me thinking recently about the future of major junior, one which could solve everyone’s woes: a 24-team CHL Super League.
Without getting bogged down in too many details, this would feature a two-tiered system, where the bigger teams not only pay their players but can also buy players from smaller franchises – much in the same way European soccer teams do. This, of course, would turn the smaller teams into development squads for the bigger teams, but at least there would be financial incentives, and the smaller franchises could survive.
So take the Londons, Quebec's and Kelowna's of the world and put them into one league. This Super League would get the bulk of national TV and sponsorship revenues to pay for the uptick in travel. The benefit here is that for many of the WHL teams (or Sault Ste. Marie of the OHL), they’d be replacing mind-numbingly long bus trips with shorter plane rides, even though they’re traveling long distances.
If it is true one-third of major junior franchises make money, let’s allow those teams to take advantage of their largesse.
As for the smaller-market teams, they could sell top prospects and players to Super League teams in order to stabilize their financial situation. These smaller teams would still get a chance of winning a league championship, and perhaps there’s even one slot in the Memorial Cup for them (the Super League teams would naturally get more slots in this scenario). You’d have to work out how this new two-tiered system would impact the three CHL drafts, but I believe there is a solid foundation to build off here.
But of course, there’s a fly in the ointment here as teams such as Acadie-Bathurst and Rouyn-Noranda demonstrated. Their wins are great for the sport and, right now, they can compete with big-city teams in Calgary, Vancouver or Halifax thanks to deft talent evaluation and bold trades, like the one that saw Noah Dobson go from Acadie-Bathurst to Rouyn-Noranda. In the Super League, an NHL first-rounder wouldn’t be going from one small market to another; Dobson would have been playing for the Mooseheads or Remparts instead. And coach-GM Mario Pouliot likely would have been snapped up by a Super League team, too.
The Huskies and Titan both earned their Cups by building and developing talent and making clever moves (Rouyn-Noranda traded for Dobson and Teasdale but also selected Boston Bruins pick Jakub Lauko in the CHL import draft) en route to glory. They proved that they could hang with higher-profile teams and, in the end, surpass them.
When all the Huskies and their fans returned to Rouyn-Noranda from Halifax, there was a good chance they ended up at Bar le Groove, a sort of party HQ for the team in town. Everyone will know the boys there, and those players will be heroes for years to come. I still like my idea for a CHL Super League, but I have to admit: I also love the idea of a small copper town being the center of the major junior universe for a little while.