The Memorial Cup, jewel of the major junior season, kicks off this week in Saskatoon. The Ontario League’s London Knights were the last team to qualify, but also the first team locked in for next year’s installation as the franchise was just named host city for the 2014 edition.
According to the selection committee, the Knights’ best attribute was the roster itself. London will once again be a powerhouse next season and that was the reason the Knights won over Barrie and Windsor. But the Knights are almost always a powerhouse. They’ve won the best division in the whole Canadian Hockey League eight of the past 10 years and produced numerous NHLers.
Which is why it’s interesting to see the OHL reward them with a second Memorial Cup in 10 years. The Knights won it all on home ice during the 2004-05 NHL lockout, with Corey Perry’s crew besting Sidney Crosby’s Rimouski Oceanic in the final. With the OHL rotating with the Quebec and Western Leagues, that means London has two of the four most recent OHL Memorial Cups.
The upshot is that players such as Max Domi, Bo Horvat, Olli Maatta and the Rupert twins will have the opportunity to play in three straight Cups, no matter how the Knights fare in next year’s OHL playoffs. Nikita Zadorov, sure to be a high pick in the 2013 NHL draft, will get into his second.
Here’s where it gets puzzling: The OHL had the chance to grant the same opportunity to the Windsor Spitfires in 2011, but decided not to. Why enforce one hegemony and not another? The Spitfires were coming off back-to-back Memorial Cup wins (London lost the final to Shawinigan last year) on the strength of players such as Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique and Ryan Ellis. Windsor lost the 2011 bid to Mississauga, despite boasting a competitive roster that made it to the Western Conference final before losing to eventual league champ Owen Sound (who would beat Mississauga for the crown). Sure, Hall and Henrique were gone, but Ellis was still in town alongside Zack Kassian and Alexander Khokhlachev, while the Spits added world junior hero Jack Campbell in net.
Similarly, Saint John won the Memorial Cup in Mississauga, but the Quebec League’s selection committee had tapped Shawinigan, a far inferior team on paper, to host the 2012 Cup. The Sea Dogs were sure to return stars such as Jonathan Huberdeau, Nathan Beaulieu and Zack Phillips and Saint John itself had a suitable rink and plenty of hotels. With the Shawinigan bid, however, hotels in Trois-Rivieres (a half-hour away) had to be used to accommodate everyone.
As it turns out, Shawinigan won the Cup on home ice, albeit in a peculiar way. The Cataractes added some big-name talent to supplement its roster during the season (all host teams do this to some extent), but were knocked out of the QMJHL playoffs in the second round by Chicoutimi, who were whipped themselves in the next round by Saint John. The Sea Dogs lost just one game in the entire post-season to claim their second straight league title.
But the Cataractes had history on their side (not to mention former Canadian PM Jean Chretien, a supporter of the bid). Shawinigan has played in the QMJHL since its birth, yet had never won a championship. Winning the automatic bid for hosting gave them a shot at the Memorial Cup title and the Cats took advantage. This year, Saskatoon finds itself in the same situation: The Blades date back to the beginning of the WHL, but have never won a league title. Now they have that chance as hosts.
If the Blades triumph on home ice, it will be a great story, particularly since they are huge underdogs to London, Portland and Halifax.
But the opportunity is there, thanks to the league.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at @THNRyanKennedy.