How to get your hockey fix: Canadian Major Juniors
The CHL's three top tier junior leagues are the cradles of many NHL stars
Seth Jones (Portland), Nathan MacKinnon (Halifax) are top prospects to watch
The 2013 World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia will be a must-see event
No NHL, no problem. While the lockout drags on, there's plenty of topflight hockey to follow across the sport's sprawling landscape. Much of it is already underway. Here's the best of what to watch, and where.
The umbrella organization that oversees Canada's three major junior leagues -- Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League -- is comprised of 60 teams spread over nine Canadian provinces and four U.S. states. It's a major pipeline for NHL players, attracting much of the top talent aged 15-20 from around the world via separate league drafts from specified territories across North America, and a unified import draft of players born overseas. Each member league crowns its own playoff champion. Those three, along with a host team (rotated every year among the leagues) meet in a round-robin tournament for the Memorial Cup. First awarded in 1919, the venerable trophy has long been symbolic of the top junior team in Canada.
The CHL also cooperates with the sport's governing body in the country, Hockey Canada, to provide players for key in-season international events, such as the World U-20, U-18, and U-17 championships. The U-20, better known as the World Juniors, is the premier amateur event on the hockey calendar. Team Canada will be made up almost exclusively of CHL players. The league will also be represented on most other rosters. Sweden is the defending champion after defeating Russia, 1-0, in last year's final.
Nov. 5-15, Subway Super Series: A six -game tour featuring a team of Russian junior all-stars, who play a pair of matches against the best under-20 players from each of the CHL leagues. It starts with the QMJHL taking on the Russians in Blainville-Boisbriand, QC, and ends with the WHL's best playing host in Victoria, BC.
Dec. 26-Jan. 5, World Junior Championships: This year's tournament will be held in Ufa, Russia, featuring 10 teams: Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, Latvia and Switzerland in Group A, and Canada, the U.S, Russia, Slovakia and Germany in Group B.
Dec. 29-Jan. 4, World U-17 Hockey Challenge: Russia tries to defend its championship in a 27-game tournament held in Victoriaville and Drummondville, Quebec.
Jan. 16, Top Prospects Game: The CHL's top 40 prospects for the 2013 NHL Draft will be in action at the Halifax Metro Centre with the game carried on TSN in Canada.
April 18-28, World U-18 Championship, Sochi, Russia: Defending champion Team USA is in Group A with Finland, Russia, the Czech Republic, and Latvia. Group B includes Canada, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Slovakia.
May 17-26, Memorial Cup tournament: The Saskatoon Blades of the WHL will host and try to win their first CHL championship.
The O is generally regarded as the top junior circuit in the world. Established in 1974, it's a 20-team circuit divided into four five-team divisions and two conferences. Seventeen of the teams are based in Ontario, with two more in Michigan and one in Pennsylvania. All clubs play a 68-game schedule, with the playoff champion taking home the J. Ross Robertson Cup
Approximately 20 percent of current NHLers, and 11 first-round selections in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, including first-overall pick Nail Yakupov (Sarnia), got their starts or trained there. Players are aged 16-20, though the vast majority are 17-19. Each team is allowed to dress up to three 20-year-olds. A 15-year-old may play under special exemption. Notable league alumni include Wayne Gretzky (Sault Ste. Marie), Steve Yzerman (Peterborough), Taylor Hall (Windsor), Steven Stamkos (Sarnia), John Tavares (London) and Tyler Seguin (Plymouth).
Kitchener Rangers: They're loaded with NHL first- rounders -- Radek Faksa (Dallas), Ryan Murphy (Carolina), Matt Puempel (Ottawa) -- proven OHL performers like Tobias Rieder (Edmonton) and Max Iafrate, and they have the league's best 1-2 punch in net with John Gibson (Anaheim) and Franky Palazzese. The trick now is for coach Steve Spott to finally get the perpetually contending Rangers over the hump...all while prepping for his role as head coach of Team Canada for the 2013 World Junior Championship.
London Knights: The defending OHL champs graduated several key contributors, but with Dale Hunter back behind the bench after a turbulent stint with the Washington Capitals, and a core of young talent, the Knights look as threatening as ever. Pittsburgh Penguins first rounders Scott Harrington and Olli Maatta are game-changing defenders, while energy forward Bo Horvat, a potential 2013 first rounder, and Seth Griffith (Boston) are capable of leading the offense. It's a deep, fast and dangerous group that has a chance to avenge its loss in the 2012 Memorial Cup Final.
Niagara Ice Dogs: Last season's Eastern champs return 15 players, including CHL defenseman of the year Dougie Hamilton (Boston) and two-way blueliner Brock Beukeboom (Tampa Bay). However, they lost more than a third of their 2011-12 scoring to graduation, meaning players like Ryan Strome (NY Islanders), Brett Ritchie (Dallas) and rookie Anthony DiFruscia (2013 draft eligible) need to step up if they're to remain the class of the conference. If the NHL ever gets its own season rolling, the Ice Dogs are likely to lose both Hamilton and Strome. Can coach/GM Marty Williamson shuffle the pieces to keep his team in contention?
Plymouth Whalers: The Whalers boast four NHL first rounders up front- -- Stefan Noesen (Ottawa), J.T. Miller (NY Rangers), Tom Wilson (Washington) and Richard Rakell (Anaheim) -- so they won't have any problems scoring. They graduated captain Beau Schmitz (Carolina) from the back end, but Connor Carrick (Washington) and Gianluca Curcuruto (Columbus) will anchor a steady D corps. Coach Mike Velluci has kept the team competitive. Now he needs to get it to the next level.
RW Tyler Biggs, Oshawa Generals: Projected as a top-six power forward in the NHL, Toronto's 2011 first rounder bailed on Miami University after one season for the chance to skate with his father Don's old junior side in Oshawa.
C Max Domi, London Knights: He must have inherited those high-end offensive instincts from his mom. Tie's kid is a dancer on the ice -- smooth, creative and hypnotizing, traits not associated with his notorious dad. He'll challenge for the league lead in YouTube highlights.
D Aaron Ekblad, Barrie Colts: Any kid who can take the 2012 OHL Rookie of the Year as a 15-year-old defender has to be a special player. He's the prototypical big, mobile defender that every NHL team craves ... but they'll have to wait until the 2014 draft.
C Alex Galchenyuk, Sarnia Sting: A knee injury limited him to just eight games last season, so the third overall pick from last June should benefit from a full season of junior. He has the tools to challenge for the league scoring lead, but the three weeks he'll miss while serving as Team USA's top center at the World Juniors could derail his hopes.
G John Gibson, Kitchener Rangers: The next great American-born goalie? If Gibson, a second-round pick by the Anaheim Ducks in 2011, can stay out of the doctor's office he'll rank among the league's best. Look for him to start for Team USA at the World Juniors.
RW Josh Ho-Sang, Windsor Spitfires: The fifth overall pick in the OHL draft is the leading contender for rookie of the year. He's confident and creative and there may not be a better pair of hands in the league.
C Connor McDavid, Erie Otters: The first overall pick in the 2012 OHL draft is just the third 15-year-old to be granted early entry into the league. (The other two: Aaron Ekblad in 2011; John Tavares in 2005.) A slick, playmaking center with superstar potential, he'll face a tough challenge from opponents who are as much as five years older.
C Sean Monahan, Ottawa 67s: A classic first-line center, Monahan has size (6-2, 193), is highly-skilled and plays a strong two-way game. At the moment, he's regarded as the OHL's top draft prospect. He may challenge for first overall.
C Kerby Rychel, Windsor Spitfires: The son of NHL enforcer (and Spits GM/owner) Warren Rychel exploded for 41 goals last season after netting seven as a rookie. That finishing touch, along with his leadership and high compete level, makes him a likely top-10 pick in the next NHL draft.
G Malcolm Subban, Belleville Bulls: Boston's 2011 first rounder hums along at a lower frequency than brother P.K., but is equally athletic and competitive. He's looking to earn the starting job for Canada at the 2013 World Juniors.
RW Sergei Tolchinsky, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds,: His size (5-foot-7, 155) will dampen NHL draft enthusiasm, but Tolchinsky could turn out to be the O's most exciting player. He was dynamite at last winter's U-17 Hockey Challenge, tallying a hat trick in a gold medal-clinching win over the U.S.
In Ontario: The OHL Action Pak is available to cable subscribers throughout the province and features more than 250 games per season. Price varies by carrier.
Elsewhere: Complete season pass for online viewing is $299.99. Other plans allow you to follow a single team or buy games individually or in packs of five or 10.
Oct. 18, Erie at Windsor: Last year, Connor McDavid and Josh Ho-Sang were teammates on the powerful Toronto Marlboros AAA side. This will be their first meeting since the two were top-five picks in the OHL draft.
Oct. 28, Plymouth at Kitchener: The teams have staged seven-game playoff battles each of the past two seasons. Safe to say they don't much like each other.
Nov. 8 and 12, Subway Super Series: The OHL's Guelph Storm and Sarnia Sting host Games 3 and 4 respectively against a touring team of Russian junior all-stars who will play a pair of matches against the best under-20 players from each of the three CHL leagues.
Dec. 7, Niagara at London: Teams meet for the first time since last season's OHL finals.
Dec. 29, Windsor at Saginaw; London at Plymouth: An OHL outdoor doubleheader at Detroit's Comerica Park as part of the NHL's Winter Classic festivities (assuming the Classic survives the lockout).
Jan. 4, Barrie at Erie: Three 15-year-old players in league history have been granted exceptional status for early admission. Two, McDavid and Aaron Ekblad, meet up for the first time in the O (their teams play a week earlier, but both kids could be away at the U-17 World Hockey Challenge).
Mar. 3, Kitchener at London: Possible preview of the Western Conference final. Or not. Doesn't matter. Intense rivalry ensures that this'll be a good one.