How to make hockey grow in North America, particularly in the United States? For the most part, Canada has worked out an excellent solution, the CHL which binds together the three main branches of junior hockey in Canada, the WHL, the OHL, and QMJHL and provides a national championship, the Memorial Cup each year. The only awkward part is Northern Ontario which has cities like Thunder Bay and Timmins which might be able to successfully support junior teams but are too far away to compete feasibly with other areas of Canada. Unless airfare is significantly reduced or a dramatic new way of traveling is invented, these isolated areas will have to be ignored for some time in the future.
Given the precarious state of owning and operating junior teams in North America, travel is a serious issue. For that reason there is no inter-league play except for the Memorial Cup tournament itself. It’s a fanciful concept but until improvements in travel are invented, it will have to remain an unrealized dream.
Growth of hockey starts with growth in the levels of play before a player reaches the NHL level. Of the three branches in junior Canadian hockey, the OHL has the best chance to expand. There are still lots of smaller Canadian towns in southern Ontario to plant new teams and northern New York State, Michigan, and Ohio offer lots more possibilities for expansion.
The QMJHL offers good chances for expansion but the league has too many weak sister franchises in terms of attendance and small arenas to do much. Right now the league wants to strengthen its existing franchises instead of expanding.
That leaves the WHL which is the biggest league in the CHL with 22 teams including an American branch. But here the problem of travel is most manifest. Areas of growth like Montana, Idaho, and southern Oregon are too far away from the existing WHL franchises to be feasible. So the best solution is to form new American junior leagues and affiliate them and existing American ones with the CHL.
Why join American junior leagues to Canada? Simply put, there is a drop in quality of play between Canadian and American junior hockey. Most of the best American players come from the CHL or from American university hockey. Alongside expanding the markets for junior hockey in the United States, raising the standard of play has to be a priority.
Forget the nationalism argument. The United States and Europe are quite content to send many of their top junior prospects into the CHL for development. In fact the Europeans want in so badly that the CHL has put a limit on how many their teams can have. Doing well in the CHL is almost a certain ticket to becoming a high draft choice in the NHL draft, no matter if the player comes from Canada, Europe, or the United States.
Where to start? There is only one Tier 1 junior level league in the United States, in the United States Hockey League, with most of the teams located in the northern, central United States. Becoming a branch under the CHL umbrella would raise the standard of play in the league and open opportunities for more American, Canadian, and European boys. Organizing a new league in the Montana-Idaho area and maybe other states within reasonable traveling distance would be a good idea. And sorting out and organizing another American hotbed of hockey, New England would help.
That would make the Memorial Cup a six team tournament (unless the CHL had any other ideas to make the tournament 8 teams; a host city and the best wild card team of the 6 branches of the league). As for the nationalist argument of American teams and leagues being under the Canadian umbrella: Well the Memorial Cup is probably the most prestigious trophy for junior hockey in the world. The existing American franchises in the CHL do not mind competing for it and more American leagues and franchises would be competing for it at a higher standard of play.
Reorganizing junior hockey, particularly in the United States is essential for growth. At a recent summit of the “big 4″ North American major league commissioners, Gary Bettman commented on the growth of hockey at the junior level of the United States. But the present growth is nothing compared to what could be accomplished if the existing leagues were better organized, new leagues founded, and the standard of play significantly raised.