- Chris Stevenson
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LONDON, Ontario This is the season for big finales, and with apologies to "Everybody Loves Raymond," what's shaping up as the wrap to "The Crosby Show (Part I)" could be the big ratings-grabber north of the border.
Teen sensation Sidney Crosby, the most anticipated prospect since Mario Lemieux, is likely putting the final touches on his remarkable junior career.
The 17-year-old will have a huge stage starting Saturday, as Crosby and the Rimouski Oceanic enter the Memorial Cup, the major junior championship that brings together the winners of the Canadian Hockey League's three divisions (Quebec, Western and Ontario, which, as host league this season, gets two entries).
Rimouski, the Quebec champs, will kick off the four-team tournament against the host London Knights, the powerhouse Ontario Hockey League champions, Saturday night in the tournament's marquee matchup.
What a start.
The Knights, who have been built specifically for this tournament by Dale and Mark Hunter, the former NHLers who serve as coach and general manager, respectively, are one of the most powerful teams in junior hockey history. They were the No. 1-ranked team this year, and reeled off a CHL-record 31-game unbeaten streak to start the season.
"They're basically an all-star team," marveled one agent after a game in the Ontario Hockey League final. The Knights lost but two games at home this season and will have a decided home-ice advantage at the John Labatt Centre.
The Oceanic ripped off a 35-game unbeaten streak of their own to finish the year (28 to end the regular season, a Quebec League record, and another seven in the playoffs).
They have lost only one game in their last 40 dating back to December.
With the NHL playoffs nothing but a bitter memory for lockout-weary fans and the world championships now over, the Calder Cup (the American Hockey League championship) and Memorial Cup represent a couple of last helpings of elite-level hockey before summer's warm blanket puts hockey to sleep.
It couldn't be better timing for junior hockey.
This is shaping up as one of the most intriguing Memorial Cup championships in recent memory, and the juniors will enjoy the stage to themselves.
In addition to the powerhouse Knights and Oceanic, the tournament features the Western Hockey League champion Kelowna Rockets, a great story in their own right. They are the defending champions who are making a remarkable third straight Memorial Cup appearance. The record for most consecutive Memorial Cup appearances is four, by the New Westminster Bruins in 1975-78.
The Rockets gave up just 46 goals in 24 postseason games.
They have 14 players back from last year's Cup squad and eight who are playing in their third Cup. They are backstopped by blue line workhorse Shea Weber, a Nashville Predators draft pick.
The fourth team is the Ottawa 67's, who lost the Ontario Hockey League final to the Knights, but earned their trip because the host league gets two berths.
That's not to sell short the 67's, who overachieved in the playoffs under legendary coach and general manager Brian Kilrea, the 70-year-old Hall of Famer who is the winningest coach in major junior history and chasing his third Memorial Cup.
But make no mistake about it.
This tournament is Crosby's to own.
The two-time Quebec Major Junior Hockey League scoring champion is a slam-dunk top pick in the next NHL draft (whenever that is).
This is most likely Crosby's swan song as a junior hockey player. If the NHL can sort out its mess, he will be NHL-bound next year.
If not, speculation is he will play either in Europe or in the AHL given he has nothing left to prove in junior hockey. Agent Pat Brisson has been talking to a variety of teams and leagues, keeping options open.
Crosby won his second Quebec League scoring title in as many years (66 goals, 102 assists for 168 points in just 62 games).
He was also the Quebec League playoff scoring leader with 14 goals and 17 assists in just 13 games.
"His second and third efforts are almost more than his first effort," Knights defenseman Danny Syvret told the Canadian Press. Syvret, a teammate of Crosby's on Canada's gold-medal winning national junior team, characterized Crosby as "very relentless."
Winning the Memorial Cup would give Crosby both a gold medal from the world junior championship and Canada's national junior championship.
"My focus has been on the Memorial Cup since the season started," Crosby told reporters after the Oceanic swept the Halifax Mooseheads in the Quebec League final.
Teen sensation Sidney Crosby should command most of the attention during the Canadian Hockey League's Memorial Cup.