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Saint John Sea Dogs Eric Gelinas (L) and Michael Kirkpatrick (R) celebrate a goal by Nathan Beaulieu (C) during the third period of their round-robin Memorial Cup ice hockey game against the Mississauga St.Michael's Majors in Mississauga May 20, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Cassese

Mike Cassese/Reuters

It's been known as the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for 42 years, when the Quebec Junior Hockey League and the Metropolitan Montreal Junior Hockey League merged in 1969.

Listen closely to hockey fans in Eastern Canada, however, and they'll tell you the "M" in QMJHL should stand for something else.

Maritimes.

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Fifteen or 20 years ago, that type of talk was unthinkable as the "Q" was a Quebec-based and dominated league. Expansion into Halifax, in 1994, came with plenty of trepidation, as many wondered if junior hockey would work in the region given the extensive travel involved.

Fast forward to 2011 and a full one-third of the QMJHL is now based in the Maritimes, with the number of junior hockey players drawn from the area at an all-time high.

On Sunday, the Saint John Sea Dogs can cap that growth with a championship, becoming the first Maritime winner of the MasterCard Memorial Cup in the tournament's 93-year history.

"When I was a kid growing up, I was thinking about playing for the junior A team," said Sea Dogs coach Gerard Gallant, who eventually moved 12 hours west of his hometown of Summerside, PEI, to play in the QMJHL.

"Now when the Maritime kids are going up through minor hockey, they're saying, 'We can play in this league,' and that's the goal they shoot for. And I think it'd be huge [for the region]if we can win the Cup on Sunday."

The Sea Dogs are emblematic of just how dramatically the Maritimes have embraced junior hockey, too. Including Saint John, four of the top five teams in league attendance are based in the region, with Halifax, Cape Breton and Moncton also drawing well.

The Sea Dogs' roster has six players born in New Brunswick, three in Nova Scotia and one in Prince Edward Island.

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By comparison, at the 1994 Memorial Cup in Laval, Que., the year before the Halifax Mooseheads joined the QMJHL, the two Quebec league teams in the tournament had a combined three players born in Atlantic Canada.

Sea Dogs forward Ryan Tesink, who grew up in Saint John, said that shift will only help hockey in the region.

"There'll be a lot more players develop and come out of the Q from the Maritimes," said Tesink, who is projected to go in the second round of the 2011 NHL draft.

"There's more opportunities, better chances of playing and better chances of succeeding. There's also no adjustment, living so close to home."

As for the impact having junior teams in the area could have on producing NHL-calibre talent, the early returns are promising.

Including stars like Sidney Crosby and Brad Richards - from Cole Harbour, N.S., and Murray Harbour, PEI - there were 20 players born in the Maritimes or Newfoundland who played at least a game in the NHL this season.

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That's up from historical levels, a trend Gallant believes will continue as the six Maritime junior teams establish roots.

"It definitely translates into more kids playing in the NHL," he said. "There's more kids playing in the Quebec league than ever before and a lot of them are good hockey players and getting an opportunity.

"Maritime hockey's doing well."

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