Fish and the Memorial Cup begin to smell after four days.
The Memorial Cup's nightmare scenario kicked in last night. The Kelowna Rockets beat Drummondville 6-4 and secured a spot in Sunday's final. Kelowna's last round-robin contest tonight vs. the Taylor Hall-led Windsor Spitfires will essentially be an exhibition game, coast-to-coast on Rogers Sportsnet (while their baseball-playing corporate brethren are on TSN2). Meantime, the other three teams will play up to three more games to decide whom the Rockets meet in the final. Don't worry, CHL president Dave Branch, your national championship's format makes sense.
It is reasonable to wonder if any of the journalists who are out there for a long, pretty much pointless in Rimouski, Que., are going to sack up and ask Branch when he plans to adopt a more compact format. The only reason for the current model is greed.
This is not an original thought. David Naylor and Bob McCown, in their 100 Greatest Hockey Arguments book, made a very strong case for switching to a Frozen Four format for the Mem Cup. The gist of it was, find a way to have four teams qualify (no "host teams") and do it over a single weekend.
It is understood that there are financial considerations for a 10-day tournament. It is a cash cow for the host team. This being Canada, there's a feeling that it's a waste to have teams travel cross-country to play only one or two games. Since the all-news-is-local phenomena applies in junior hockey (once the local team goes out, most people tune out), the belief is that there has to be a team with a rooting interest, hence the host berth. Reverting to a three-team double round-robin will never happen, since everyone remembers 1980, when Mike Keenan's Peterborough Petes dumped their final game to ensure an all-eastern final vs. Cornwall (which backfired, since the Royals won).
However, a badly designed format will inevitably yield bad results.
It's not like this happens every year at the Mem Cup. The way the 2007 tourney in Vancouver unfolded was close to a perfect scenario. Two teams went 2-1 and two went 1-2 in the round-robin, which led to a tie-breaker game. The Medicine Hat Tigers, who earned the bye straight through to Sunday, ended up being defeated in the final, albeit by the host team, the Vancouver Giants, who didn't earn their way there on the ice but through their ownership being willing to sign some cheques.
The CHL cannot count on that happening. Branch and the boys might have good little moneymaker on their hands, but it shortchanges players and fans watching across Canada (and the U.S.).
First of all, the drawn-out format, one could argue, can sap teams of momentum, which is important in playoff hockey. Imagine how Kelowna is going to feel if they lose Sunday after sitting and stewing and sightseeing for four days. The players have also put in a full season, 68-72 games plus four playoff rounds, while getting paid a token sum.
By mid-May, 17- to 21-year-old juniors only have so much good hockey left in them. The second and third games of the tournament, Windsor's two one-goal losses to the QMJHL teams, were very entertaining, but can they be expected to keep that up as the week drags along? Probably not.
The way to do it, as others have noted, is to confine it to one weekend. Find a way to have four teams qualify and do it all over a single weekend. Or have two league champions play off for the right to meet the champion of the league which produced the previous champion. In that scenario, Drummondville could have gone to Windsor for the semi-final and the winner could have proceeded right on to Kelowna. Perhaps that would not work or be deemed too cost-prohibitive.
Any and all ideas for fixing the tournament are welcome. The current model is as broken as the Cup itself was after Spokane got it last season.
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