HALIFAX — Small-market teams in the Canadian Hockey League are finding ways to succeed against the big boys.
For the second year in a row, the Memorial Cup features two junior franchises from Canadian cities with smaller populations compared to others in the 60-team league.
The Rouyn-Noranda Huskies and Prince Albert Raiders both earned their way to this year's national major junior championship by capturing their league titles, while the Swift Current Broncos and Acadie-Bathurst Titan made appearances in 2018, with the latter taking home the CHL's biggest prize.
Huskies defenceman Noah Dobson and coach Mario Pouliot won the Memorial Cup last season with the Titan, and have returned this year looking to do it again with the Huskies on Sunday in the final against the host Halifax Mooseheads.
"It just shows you don't have to be big market to have success in the CHL," said Dobson.
"When I was in Bathurst, even the smallest market in whole CHL, we never talked about that," said Pouliot. "It was building the team, having a plan and making it happen."
Rouyn-Noranda is a Quebec mining town near the edge the Ontario border — about 625 kilometres northwest of Montreal — with a population of about 43,000. The Huskies joined the Quebec Major Hockey League in 1996 and won their first league title in 2016. They made their first-ever appearance at the Memorial Cup in Red Deer, Alta., that year and lost in the final to the London Knights 3-2 in overtime.
Meanwhile, Prince Albert, Sask., is a city of 35,000 about 140 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon. The Raiders joined the Western Hockey League in 1982 after success at the junior-A level and won their only Memorial Cup in 1985.
The Huskies and Raiders could sell out their home arenas three times over and still not play in front of as many people as they are this week at the Scotiabank Centre — home of the Memorial Cup host Mooseheads.
Iamgold Arena in Rouyn-Noranda fits 3,200 fans while the Art Hauser Centre in Prince Albert has 2,591 seats, plus 708 standing-only spots. The Scotiabank Centre had 9,926 in the stands for Prince Albert's tournament opener against the hosts, while the Huskies opened against the Ontario league champion Guelph Storm with 9,509 spectators.
The championship game between Rouyn-Noranda and Halifax, as well as the semifinal between the Huskies and Guelph Storm, sold out at 10,595.
"Even if you're a small market you have to think as a big market," said Pouliot. "For us it's really important to take care of the people we are drafting, making sure we give them the tools to develop and build a good team."
Felix Bibeau scored twice as Rouyn-Noranda beat the Guelph Storm in the semifinal on Friday and said that all the local establishments back home were maxed out on space as fans made a night of the moment.
"Every restaurant was showing the game and it was packed. My billet texted me and told me he wanted to watch the game at Boston Pizza and it was full," said Bibeau.
"Our fans are behind our team, it's amazing how they cheer, very loud," said Pouliot. "Everywhere the guys go the people know who they are and it's fun for them."
Being minor regional celebrities with strong fan support is just one of the perks of playing outside a big city.
"(The) thing with small markets is the guys in the room are close. You go to the rink and there's not much else to do. Go home and spend time with your teammates, they're your brothers and that's a big part of our success," said Dobson.
Not all small markets survive, though, with financial backing often proving difficult.
The Kootenay Ice, who played in small-town Cranbrook, B.C. — population 20,000 since 1998 — called it quits after the 2018-19 season, with ownership choosing to take the organization east to larger Winnipeg.
"It's tough because your corporate (sponsorship) is a lot smaller, your population to put in the building is a lot smaller and it takes a certain amount of dollars to operate a franchise, so it's more difficult," said Raiders coach Marc Habscheid.
The Raiders sold out their WHL final against the Vancouver Giants, and had fans running to get spots in the standing area. It was the most support Habscheid had seen in his four seasons with the team.
"You can market all you want but winning is your best marketing," he said.
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