The tears hadn’t yet dried in Regina on Monday night when the bleating began on social media, with some fans crying for a change in the format of the four-team Memorial Cup tournament.
The Pats, the host team for this year’s tournament, had just dropped a 3-2 decision to the host Swift Current Broncos in Game 7 of an opening-round WHL playoff series.
Of course, that means the Pats are finished until the Memorial Cup begins, something that is more than 40 days away.
A year ago, it was the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires, the host team for the 2017 tournament, who got bounced in the first round. They came back, under head coach Rocky Thompson, a former WHL player and coach, to win the whole thing.
But, the social media gurus wanted to know, how is it fair that a team can lose in the first round and still win the national championship?
No, it isn’t right. But it’s time for people to realize that the Memorial Cup stopped being a national championship in 1983, which is when the present format that includes a host team was adopted.
If you ask around the WHL, those who have been involved in championships will tell you that the Memorial Cup doesn’t carry the cachet of a WHL championship. They also will tell you that playing in the round-robin Memorial Cup can be a letdown after taking part in a gritty, competitive best-of-seven championship series.
Now that we have that out of the way . . .
What the WHL needs to do is admit that its present playoff format is flawed, and — if it isn’t just providing lip service about wanting to minimize travel for its players — go back to having the first two rounds within each division. After the first two rounds, the division champions meet for conference titles, and the two survivors play for the Ed Chynoweth Cup.
The WHL likes to think of itself as a mini-NHL, which is why the present format — one that includes two wild-card entries in each conference — is in place. What’s good for the NHL is good for the WHL, or so the thinking goes.
This playoff format proves that isn’t always the case.
Late last month, with the first round unfolding, the WHL sent its commissioner, Ron Robison, on tour. He started in the Pacific Northwest, mostly doing damage control after that debacle in the Oregon State Legislature in Salem involving minimum-wage legislation, but he also addressed the playoff format.
“We really feel like this is the best format and it works really well for our league,” Robison told Brandon Rivers of dubnetwork.ca. “First of all, when you consider the travel demands on our players, we want to really have those games in the first round in the division, because travel is limited. At the same time, it helps with your rivalries. . . .
“If you look throughout our league in each division, we have some great rivalries. Why not get that competition level really up high in the playoffs and see how it goes from there. There’s pros and cons but, generally speaking, this format makes a lot of sense for our league.”
Later, while in Medicine Hat, Robison told Ryan McCracken of the Medicine Hat News:
“I think when you look into it, it’s more than just the seeding of teams in a playoff competition, whether it’s conference format or a divisional format. For us, in this particular case it’s about the fact that we can reduce travel from the players’ standpoint, we can take advantage of the great rivalries we have.”
We will assume that Robison said this with a straight face, even though he was in Medicine Hat, the home of the Tigers, a team that ended up playing the Brandon Wheat Kings in the first round in two straight years. That also meant travelling to Dauphin, Man., where the Wheat Kings played their first-round home games in both series because their home arena had been taken over by the annual Royal Manitoba Winter Fair.
Had the WHL used a divisional playoff format, the Tigers would have met the Calgary Hitmen in last season’s first round, and the Kootenay Ice this time around. The Ice, of course, didn’t even make the playoffs this season, thanks to the wild-card format.
Using the divisional format, the Wheat Kings would have clashed with the Moose Jaw Warriors in this season’s first round. Instead, Brandon ousted Medicine Hat in six games.
(In the Western Conference, the Tri-City Americans, a wild-card entry, swept the B.C. Division-champion Kelowna Rockets. In a divisional format, Tri-City would have opened against the Everett Silvertips, with Kelowna meeting the Kamloops Blazers, who didn’t qualify under this system.)
The present wild-card format also has other flaws.
For starters, the Saskatoon Blades didn’t make the playoffs despite having more victories and more points than two Eastern Conference teams that did advance.
This format also means that every first round includes four series that feature teams that finished second and third in each division. That means that teams that were awfully good over 72 games exit early. Two more awfully good teams are going to go home after the second round, too.
The biggest flaw, however, is that there now is the perception that the wild-card system can be gamed.
I’m not saying that’s what happened this season, but you may recall that the Wheat Kings were third in the overall standings — and third in the Eastern Conference and East Division — when the trade deadline arrived on Jan. 10. A third-place finish in the division would have meant a first-round meeting with Swift Current.
The Wheat Kings chose to trade away two top-end players — defenceman Kale Clague and forward Tanner Kaspick — for a bundle of future assets.
In the end, Regina moved past Brandon into third place, and, as we saw, lost out to Swift Current in the first round. The Wheat Kings ended up in possession of the Eastern Conference’s first wild-card spot, which sent them into the playoffs against Medicine Hat, which had finished atop the Central Division, albeit with four fewer victories and five fewer points than Brandon.
The Wheat Kings now will open the second round against the host Lethbridge Hurricanes on Friday. The Wheat Kings finished the regular season with more victories (40-33) and more points (85-72) than the Hurricanes.
There can be no arguing that the Wheat Kings ended up with an easier route to the conference final than they would have had with a third-place finish in their division. Of course, the Hurricanes may have something to say about that.
There also can be no arguing about the job done by Brandon general manager Grant Armstrong, who added nine assets, including four first-round bantam draft picks, in those two transactions.
Inadvertent or not, he seems to have helped his club improve its playoff odds.
Meanwhile, in the Western Conference, Tri-City, the first wild-card entry, will meet the Victoria Royals in the second round, meaning it avoids a potential clash with Everett or the Portland Winterhawks for another round. Everett and Portland are preparing for a second-round series after the Winterhawks beat the visiting Spokane Chiefs, 3-1, in Game 7 last night.
Who knows how all of this will play out, but it all leaves me with one question:
What will be the reaction by the WHL pooh-bahs should Brandon and Tri-City, a pair of wild-card teams, end up in the championship final?
I recently came into possession of the feature stories written this season by Perry Bergson of the Brandon Sun that focus on former Wheat Kings players. This was the second season in which Bergson has written one of these stories each week, and they are most enjoyable. If you can find them, I highly recommend them. I also wonder why more junior hockey writers — assuming that they really love to write — haven’t followed Bergson’s example by producing stories like these.
The fact that none of the numerous Hockey Insiders had the scoop on the retirements of Daniel and Henrik Sedin says a lot about the longtime Vancouver Canucks forwards. Obviously, there aren’t any leaks in the world of the future Hockey Hall of Famers. They were true to themselves right to the end.
Sooner or later, the WHL should be issuing a news release detailing the involvement by its 17 Canadian teams in the organ donor awareness program this season. You may recall that, among other things, the teams wore Don Cherry-tribute sweaters and then made them available via auction. I am guessing that the promotions raised well over $300,000 for the four western branches of the Kidney Foundation of Canada.
On Sept. 9, 1965, left-hander Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers threw a perfect game. Yes, Vin Scully called it. Right here for your reading enjoyment, courtesy salon.com, is that call. It is, as is mentioned here, “pure baseball literature.”