Game Fixer

Where stars come from

BRIAN BAKER, The Game Fixer

I think it’s time Canadians pay more attention to our amateur athletes before they hop the border to American universities on fruitful scholarships.

There’s nothing xenophobic about the previous statement, just a heads up to Canadians who neglect our athletes once they graduate from high school.

A constant theme I’ve come across in reporting on amateur sports, and even the brief glimpses into pro sports, is Canada doesn’t do enough to promote sports at the university level.

Angela James, one of the first women inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, expressed concern when I interviewed her last month for a sports feature.

So to wake up some folks out there, who only give the perpetually in-bud Leafs their attention, it’s time to look to where the next NHL superstars will come from.

Down at the Air Canada Centre I watched Canada’s top prospects play on-ice. On the day of the game between Team Cherry and Team Orr, Canadian Hockey League president David Branch announced they had created an advisory board to help CHL players skate through their lives as both players and students.

Joe Birch, director of recruitment and education services at the OHL, says minor hockey’s best kept secret is their scholarship program.

Every player in the league is entitled to a minimum of tuition, textbook and compulsory costs. At present, over 400 CHL players are playing for CIS teams.

“The dollar value is based upon the closest universities to where mom and dad reside,” he said. “If we’re dealing with a Toronto family, it would be the University of Toronto.”

Players don’t have to take their $7,000 per year average to their closest institution though. If they want to attend Durham College for police foundations or fire fighting, or head overseas, the money is theirs.

“That’s some of the messaging that we want to help families understand: that you can play in the premiere development league in the world — the CHL — try to reach for that goal of playing in the National Hockey League,” Birch said. “If it does not happen, then plan B: continue your education and continue to develop as a hockey player playing in Canadian university hockey.”

Don’t think Birch is just paying lip service, either.

A player for Kitchener Rangers and London Knights, he graduated from University of Western Ontario.

I had the chance to ask current OHLers Lucas Lessio and Dougie Hamilton about the program, Champions On The Ice, and although their eyes are on the NHL draft they’re happy with having an academic wingman.

The next big step is trying to get Toronto fans enthused about the OHL. Even with the Home Hardware Top Prospects Game taking place in the ACC, there was a paltry few in attendance. Grapes, as always, expressed his disappointment with the support the city gave.

“To be honest with you, junior hockey is a tough sell in Toronto,” he said. “And it always has been, except when I played.

“We used to pack 16,000 in the Gardens.”

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