When the Cornwall Royals flew into Montreal last May after winning the Memorial Cup, symbolic of the major junior hockey championship of Canada, 3,000 people greeted them at the airport. A convoy of 32 buses, plus scores of cars bedecked with streamers, escorted them the 90 miles home to a welcoming throng estimated by police at 50,000.

The population of Cornwall -- a city of light industry (paper, cellophane, rayon, tape) in the eastern-most tip of Ontario, near the borders of Quebec and upstate New York -- is only 47,000. Evidently, some citizens of the neighboring farm districts joined the victory bash.

"The queen and the pope together wouldn't have drawn a bigger crowd," says Claude McIntosh, sports editor of the Cornwall Standard-Freeholder.

The celebration began long before the Royals made the 2,000-mile return trip from the scene of their triumph: Regina, Saskatchewan. It began the moment Robert Savard scored the winning goal in overtime to beat the Peterborough Petes, 4-3, in the nationally televised tournament final.

"The town went wild, and they didn't pull it back together for two days," recalls McIntosh. "The game was on a Sunday afternoon, a warm day, and people just hit the streets. The coach, Doug Carpenter, lived with his parents on the outskirts of town, and the unofficial parade route was out the main drag (Pitt Street) to his house, turn around in the Dairy Queen parking lot, and back downtown. They've never had a traffic jam like it around here. Nobody could get out of line, and nobody cared.

"The fire trucks were out with sirens blaring. This is a pretty conservative region -- no liquor on Sunday without a banquet permit -- but everybody was sitting on top of cars drinking beer, and the police just let it go."

The local Corvette Club met the team bus at the city line, picking up each player individually in a car with his name on it. It took 90 minutes to crawl the five miles to City Hall, where Mayor Gerald Parisien exulted with the exalted. At midnight, the players signed the town's "Golden Book" of honor. They would have been given keys to the city, but they already owned it.

"People here didn't stop talking about that game for weeks," says Pat O'Neill, president of the 200-member Royals Fan Club and originator of Big Blue, an oversized bear mascot in Royal blue hockey uniform. "We got great newspaper and television coverage all over Canada. The first time we won the Memorial Cup, in Ottawa in 1972, a lot of people didn't know where Cornwall was. The hockey team put it on the map."

Such is the enthusiasm of Canadian towns such as Cornwall and Peterborough, Sault Ste. Marie and Chicoutimi and Medicine Hat, for major junior hockey, where most of the pro players of the future polish their skills. For people in smaller cities, this is their link to the faraway big time.Just because you don't live in heaven doesn't mean you can't watch the stars come out.

There are three major junior leagues in Canada: the preeminent Ontario Hockey Association (OHA), with 12 teams; the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), with 10, and the far-flung Western Hockey League (WHL), with 13, including U.S. franchises in Portland, Seattle, and Spokane.

Of the 210 players drafted by the NHL last summer, 137 came from major junior and 73 from colleges. Canadian amateur "Tier II" leagues and Europe.

Major junior also is the training ground of many NHL coaches, referees and linesmen, trainers, administrators, play-by-play broadcasters, and even the odd organist. (The fellow who plays at Cornwall home games sounds as if he's auditioning at the Wurlitzer of a big-city arena when, as the visiting team changes lines, he plays "The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out. . . .")

Junior clubs pay players $80 a week, about half of which typically goes to room and board, but otherwise they operate essentially like small-scale pro teams. The players are semiamateurs, 20 and under, and nowadays most of them go to school in the cities where they play. Some already have signed pro contracts, most others aspire to, and they all dream of winning the Memorial Cup today and the Stanley Cup tomorrow.

Unlike the vast substructure of amateur teams in various age brackets the major junior teams are not made up primarily of local players. The troops are selected from among the most promising midgets (ages 14 to 16) in the territory governed by the league.

The OHA and Quebec league hold a midget draft that is a reasonable facsimile of the pro draft. The teams pick from the available pool of skating whiz kids in inverse order of the league standings, except where draft choices have been traded.

In the Western league, teams are allowed to put a prospect on their "negotiation list" as soon as he turns 15, and the first club in line gets first crack at him. This leads to fascinating recruiting stories. Teams have been known to send long Telexes to their competitors at quarter to midnight on the eve of a hot prospect's birthday, to jam their communications and prevent them from getting their request to negotiate with the lad to league headquarters first.

Just like pro franchises, major junior teams live and die by their drawing power at the gate, so owners put pressure on their coaches and general managers to scout, draft and trade well, and ultimately to win.

The teams in towns where there is little competition for the entertainment dollar and attention of the citizenry start with a skate up. But hockey savvy and business and marketing acumen make some franchises traditional powerhouses, and lack of same leaves others perennially on thin ice.

Cornwall is a solid pillar of the troubled Quebec league. It is a good hockey town with three city-owned indoor rinks, a dozen municipal outdoor rinks, and about 50 private, backyard rinks. There are bustling amateur programs for everybody from tykes (ages 4 to 6) to old-timers (over 35). Senior hockey -- semipro leagues for players who couldn't quite make the grade, or were on the downside of it -- was big here, but has pretty much withered away all over Canada with the greater accessibility of major league hockey in person and on TV.

"Once people have been exposed to the major leagues, they don't want to settle for the minors," says Pat O'Neill. "People here got tired of senior hockey. They wanted to see the NHL on television, and junior hockey in person: the stars coming up, not the has-beens."

The Royals, the town darlings, play in the 5-year-old Cornwall Civic Complex, a recreation and convention center with a 4,000-seat rink as its centerpiece. This season attendance has been averaging 2,200 spectators for the 36-game home schedule. Playoff games sell out at $5.25 a ticket.

Away games are broadcast live or radio. Home playoff games are picked up after the first period, so as not to hurt the gate. Cornwall Cable Vision tapes all home gmes and televises the evening after they are played; surverys indicate that the viewing audience is considerable, and includes many who were at the game and want another look.

Attendance has held relatively steady even though Domtar -- manufacturers of fine grade papers, the largest company in Cornwall with 1,850 employes -- has been closed by a strike for more than four months. Town elders will tell you that the Royals straightening out after a dismal start this season has eased the hardship caused by the strike. Surely as Domtar is the economic base of Cornwall, the Royals are its social heart and soul.

"Junior hockey is everything here in the winter. It's like a lot of other Canadian town with 35,000 to 75,000 people, and no other entertainment to speak of. Life revolves around the Royals. That's all people talk about at lunchtime and over coffee. If you're planning some event, like a church social or a wedding, you look at the Royal schedule first," says McIntosh.

"The Civic Complex cost $9 million. If the Royals didn't exist, neither would the building. The team used to play across the street at the Water Street Arena, but that only seated 1,400.It was just a renovated barn, really. The club was losing money because they couldn't sell enough tickets to pay for the operation, and they threatedned to move the franchise out of Cornwall. So the politicians got working and built them a new home. It loses $400,000 a year for the taxpayers, but nobody complains.

"Americans might compare it to a college town in the South or Midwest, where the football or basketball team is all the people have. The coach is the big man in town, but if he loses a couple of games, people start to wondering if it's time to get rid of him . . . The players are like big men on campus. They have the same status here that the Canadiens do in Montreal. They're clebrities. They walk down the street, people want their autograph."

The coach-general manager of the Royals is Bob Kilger, 36, a Cornwall native who officiated in the NHL for 10 years until his contract was terminated after last season. He played major and minor league hockey -- one year he was Bobby Orr's defense mate for the Oshawa Generals in the OHA -- but he had never coached at any level until he took over the Royals three weeks into training camp, under difficult circumstances.

Doug Carpenter, a popular extrovert, had just signed a $33,000 contract, his reward for winning the Memorial Cup last year. But he got an offer he couldn't refuse from the Chicago Black Hawks to coach their farm club in Moncton, New Bruswick, and left. Kilger, who was job-hunting at the time, was given 24 hours to decide, whether he wanted to fill the vacancy, for a reported $21,000.

He took it, but the season started dismally. The Royals were in last place until they got back two underage draftees who had signed pro contracts and attended training camp with their future employers. Fred Boimistruck (Toronto) and Fred Arthur (Hartford). Kilger, who for years as an official had been trained to be tightlipped, was under intense scrutiny until the team started winning.

"You find that people take such interest in the hockey club, here, you feel as though you're a civic employe and you've got thousands of bosses, but by and large people have been supportive and pretty patient," he says, diplomatically.

On his desk is an old-fashioned, octagonal puck mounted on a plaque that identifies it as a replica of the one used in the first hockey game: Queen's University versus Royal Military College, 1886.

The inscription should read: "The Puck Stops Here."

Most of the Royals go to one of four high schools in Cornwall, the choice depending on where they ae boarded. They stay with private families who are carefully screened, and must take an interest in the youngster beyond the $40 a week they receive for his room and meals.

School tuition is paid by the club, and each player gets about $35 of his $80 weekly salary in spending money. By the time he is finished with practice (including some long bus rides to away games), school and homework, there isn't much opportunity to spend it, though.

The players who have already signed pro contracts have more money -- two weeks after the signing with the Vancouver Canucks, for example, Marc Crawford bought a new car -- but they get the same treatment as anyone else from the team, including $80, divided the same way.

"You don't exactly live like a king in junior hockey," says Gary Green, who was coach and general manager of the Peterborough Petes for two years before becoming coach of the Washington Capitals. "But you sure think you do."

The most regal of the Royals is Dale Hawerchuk, 17, one of those rare and exciting talents who can light up an arena with his speed and skills, and dominate what happens on the ice whether he is handling the puck or not. Pro scouts call him "a magician." He could be the NHL's next peach fuzz superstar.

"The more you see 'Ducky,' as the people here call him, the more amazed you are at how good he is," says Allain Dumont, an ardent Royal follower. "He has moves I haven't seen before."

During a recent game, Dumont pointed out a half-dozen pro scouts scattered around the stands, including Scotty Bowman, the former Montreal Canadien coach who is now general manager of the Buffalo Sabers, and Toronto's Johnny Bowers, once a celebrated goaltender.

How many scouts would watch Hawerchuck in a season?

"How many scouts are there? That's how many will see him," Dumont said with a knowing smile.

Until 1793, there was a rule against pro teams drafting and signing players under 20 years of age. Even the hottest prospect usually played at least three years of major junior hockey. The Houston Aeros of the late, unlamented World Hockey Association challenged the system by drafting underage Mark and Marty Howe, sons of the legendary Gordie Howe, whom they subsequently lured out of retirment to play on the same team with his boys. Court tests struck down the regulations as discriminatory, and changed major junior hockey forever.

Hawerchuk probably will be the first player selected in this year's amatuer draft, and could be playing in the NHL next year, at 18. If he makes it, the Royals would receive $27,000 from the club he plays for: $1,000 when he is drafted, another $4,000 when he is signed and $5,000 for each 40 games he playes in the NHL, up to the $27,500 limit.That is the current fee structure.

"The money from the NHL is good, but speak to any of the owners and they'll tell you. 'To hell with the money, we'd rather have the player,'" says Paul Emard, president of the Royals, a Cornjwall businessman who also owns a radio station that broadcasts their games. "They're the stars, and that's what the people come to see. If they disappear, the people feel cheated. On the other hand, we can't stop the players from signing. It's their future."

A club such as the Royals needs to average about 2,000 paying customers through the regular season to break even. Playoffs games provide the profit margin. Sale of players to the NHL is the gravy, or the equalizer for teams that are losing money. But sale of underage players hurts ticket sales, and erodes the system.

Most of the people involved in major junior hockey cite the underage draft as the chief reason attendance is declining and many teams are losing money. Quality players are snatched away after one season, which strains the loyalty and affection of the paying customers. It is not like it was in the 1960s and before, when good teams had a handful of prospective NHL standouts on the ice at the same time, and even the Bobby Orrs and Guy Lafleurs stayed three seasons.

In those days, an OHA game between Montreal's Junior Canadiens and Toronto's Marlboros ("the Marlies") inspired nearly as much impassioned interest as the holy wars between NHL Canadiens and Maple Leafs. The Junior Canadiens played to big crowds in the Forum, including a record 18,838 spectators at a 1969 game against the Oshawa Generals.

But then Montreal left the talent-laden OHA to join the newly formed Quebec league, abandoning some grand rivalries between Quebec and Ontario cities. Now the team plays in the smaller and uncelebrated Paul Sauve Arena, where the 5,800 seats are often occupied by Marley's ghosts. One game this season attracted only 595 warm bodies. Average attendance hs plummeted from a peak of 12,000 per game to 1,000 this year. The club reportedly lost $25,000 last year, and will double the deficit this season.

The Quebec City Ramparts, who frequently drew 10,000 when they had Lafleur, average only 1,300 now that they have to share the city with the NHL's Nordiques. A similar fate has befallen the Western league teams in Calgary and Winnipeg, once junior strongholds, now that those cities have NHL clubs.

In a more competitive marketplace and rugged economic times, the impact of the underage draft has been especially harsh. But many owners are too quick to blame sagging attendance and increasing red ink on it, without confronting the other problems, including excessive violence on the ice which has alienated many customers.

The Montreal Gazette, in a recent story on the Quebec league, reported a list of fights and vicious attacks that turned off spectators. The once-solid New Westminster team in the Western league encountered a full-scale revolt by patrons a few years ago after a particularly ugly brawl that led to suspensions and criminal prosecutions.

Moreover, would-be pro players have more options than in the past. Once it was assumed that any route other than major junior hockey was a dead end. The system was rigid, and led to too many false hopes and broken dreams. A few players made the NHL, more kicked around in the minor leagues or senior hockey, and many of the rest looked for jobs where a formal education wasn't required, since none had been acquired.

Gradually, college hockey became a viable alternative.

"It started simply as a percentage thing. There just weren't enough jobs in the National league, and the risk was too great," says Max McNab, general manager of the Washington Capitals. "The colleges realized this and made scholarships available for hockey, and some superior players took them. Competition and coaching improved, and it became possible to come out of college and play in the NHL. Young people and their parents wanted more security. There were too many stories of boys who played major junior, but got hurt or didn't make it and had nothing to fall back on. Once college hockey became of a caliber comparable to the juniors, a boy figured he could take a scholarship and have the best of both worlds."

Many Canadians started playing major junior hockey at 17, but then went to college if they weren't happy with their rate of progress toward the NHL. The NCAA has eliminated this possiblility by declaring anyone who has been paid as a major junior a pro, and thus ineligilbe for collegiate competition. As a result, an inceasing number of Canadians who might have played major junior have elected to stay in "Tier II" hockey, which has a lower standard of play but is strictly amateur, in order to protect their college eligibility.

The junior leagues have countered by setting up a scholarship fund, which is partially supported by the NHL. If players compete in major junior but are not drafted by the pros, their college tuition is paid by the fund after their junior career is over.

"I think that's an admirable and long-overdue reform," says Dave Dryden, former NHL goaltender, brother of all-star Ken Dryden and a thoughtful and dynamic man who succeeded Gary Green as coach-general manager of the Peterborough Petes.

Dryden sees a bright future for the major junior leagues, despite the recent decline.

"I think we fill a definite need," he said. "It's better to develop Canadian players in Canada, since the culture is so geared to hockey. The brand of hockey played in the major juniors is more akin to NHL hockey than what is played in the colleges. I think it's a good life for a youngster, provided we give him enough direction. Some teams tend to let their players run wild as long as they show up to play games, but most are more responsible now. They see that the kids go to school and have a disciplined life style. That's important, because they're all young guys."

The bottom line on the Montreal Gazette's rather pessimistic report on the state of the major juniors came from Marcel Robert, Quebec league president who promised a rededication to "good, clean, fast hockey," and predicted a resurgence in the near future.

"You must be aware of how important hockey is to the people of Canada. We will stay alive!" he said.

They will, certainly, in towns like Cornwall.