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Memorial Cup coming to Mississauga. Will fans follow?

It was a curious speech for a mayor from one of Canada's largest cities, especially given the celebratory nature of the occasion.

But there Hazel McCallion was on Monday afternoon, praising Mississauga St. Michael's Majors owner Eugene Melnyk for bringing the Memorial Cup to her city and, at the same time, lauding junior hockey's annual championship as an event that will help revive interest in the sport.

"It is Canada's game," said McCallion, who was front and centre at City Hall as Ontario Hockey League commissioner David Branch officially unveiled Mississauga as next year's host. "We've got to do everything to keep things rolling along and involve more young people."

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Elsewhere in the country, maintaining hockey mania is generally not an issue - and certainly not for local politicians or the Memorial Cup committee. The challenges in Mississauga these days, however, mirror those junior hockey has seemingly always had in the Greater Toronto Area.

The Majors, for one, have struggled to draw fans for years, finishing second last in the OHL this year with an average attendance of 2,250 per game - better than only the nearby Brampton Battalion, who face similar issues.

Out of the 60 Canadian Hockey League franchises, Mississauga ranked 49th in attendance despite posting a 90-point season.

The team's woes at the gate also drew unwanted attention in the playoffs, where even after advancing to the third round, the Hershey Centre was only 40-per-cent full for some key games.

Majors executive vice-president Duncan Stauth said Monday the team's season-ticket base this season was just 1,000, and that the plan for next year will be to sell far more by combining those tickets with Memorial Cup packages.

"This is a great opportunity," Stauth said. "Our biggest concern is having enough tickets [for the Memorial Cup]- not too many."

"I have absolutely no concerns," Branch said of potential attendance issues. "We're going to introduce some fans who maybe haven't been to a junior hockey game for a long time - or ever."

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Awarding the tournament to a team in need of a boost to its fan base, however, has rubbed some other owners around the league the wrong way. The Majors' bid beat out three others from the Barrie Colts, Kingston Frontenacs and Windsor Spitfires, all of which have had more success in terms of fan support in recent years.

The Spitfires, in particular, were considered strong candidates, given the team's recent revitalization. Windsor won the Memorial Cup last season and could repeat as champs when the 2010 tournament begins on Friday in Brandon.

Melnyk's financial heft - and his past good deed of footing the bill to own two troubled OHL franchises before the Majors relocated from Toronto in 2007 - may have also played a role. It's believed Melnyk offered a higher guaranteed profit to the OHL than the other bids, although committees are discouraged from revealing the particulars.

A non-voting member of the six-person selection committee, Branch said the four key elements the group was looking for was the quality of the team next season, the business plan, the facilities and community involvement.

He declined to elaborate further in terms of what Mississauga offered that the other bids did not.

"Our past practice has always been we do not get into details or specifics with any of the bids," Branch said.

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He added that the tournament is likely to bring in up to $15-million to the local economy - cash Stauth said won't directly benefit the Majors, given that profits are to be divided among all the league's teams.

Just getting people into the building, however, is the real goal, one Melnyk has had his eye on for some time. McCallion, the city's beloved 89-year-old mayor, said the owner had talked about bringing the tournament to Mississauga almost from Day 1 of arriving at the Hershey Centre three years ago.

Melnyk, who missed Monday's announcement due to an illness, told the media last month during the bidding process that hosting the Memorial Cup "could be a turning point for the franchise."

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