There is more than a sneaking suspicion that the CHL will probably address the wrong problem when the day that the host-team format for the Memorial Cup is finally ditched.
The writing might be on the wall for a format that's been used since 1983, where the Canadian Hockey League holds a championship tournament where one team out of four is not actually a champion. (Everyone in junior hockey just kind of goes along, rationalizing that it's all good so long as the host team had a decent playoff run, as the Quebec Remparts did by reaching Game 7 of the QMJHL final before being edged by the Rimouski Oceanic.)
Simply switching to a single-elimination format and/or including more teams — more teams that are not champion of anything, like the Remparts, sorry/not sorry — is not going to give the tournament a reboot as a media property. Cultivating broader and deeper interest happens when there's a season-long investment, sprinkled with some inventiveness, in a sport. If indeed building the Memorial Cup is top priority for the CHL and its media partners, Sportsnet and the French-language TVA Sports, the stakeholders should look at how interest in the tournament is stimulated across the entire run of the season. That's a way to create engagement.
As it stands, one team receiving the bid as much as two years in advance sucks all the fun out of it. (It also means that host team will be dealing with a denuded roster for 2-3 seasons afterward, diminishing a league's overall competitiveness and appeal.) Meantime, for probably half of the 60 teams across the CHL, and their fans, seeing a Memorial Cup appearance as either a host or league rep is out of reach. Ask a fan in Sarnia, Sudbury or Swift Current if they expect to see their beloveds playing in late May.
What might be worth looking at — and it would have kinks to work out and travel challenges, but that's for the logistics people, not the idea people — would be examining the idea brought forth by Brian Thompson, a Windsor Spitfires diehard who co-hosts the OHL Fanboys podcast. (Full disclosure: yours truly is a somewhat regular guest.) Instead of the host team, why not hold a soccer-style Cup tournament, single-elimination but with a random drawing for each round instead of a March Madness-style bracket, to determine the fourth team. Whoever emerged from that tournament would have at least won something.
As Thompson put it:
It would be a way to make the regular season a little more interesting for teams that are a little down and out. I don't think it's fair that a host team can just purchase a spot in a championship. That is like Roger Federer ponying up $5 million to get a bye to the semifinals of Wimbledon. You can't really do that.
My idea is twofold: one, to insert some element of randomness. And two, say you're a Guelph Storm fan. You got to see them in the Memorial Cup last year against teams [from outside of the OHL] like Val-d'Or and Edmonton but that's the ony chance you can see them play those teams, like Major League Baseball before interleague [play].
So what I'm suggesting is just a random draw, and anyone who watches soccer who knows what a cup tournament is knows what I mean. All the team names are in a bowl. Since it's 60 teams, you would need to give four teams a bye — the simple method is whoever your host team is, they get a bye to the second round, there's your advantage, you don't have to play. The three previous league champions get a bye. And then you draw. The first team drawn is the home team, the second team is the visiting team.
Now, you're telling me, in the middle of October, you wouldn't pay $25 to see Guelph play Medicine Hat in a one-game playoff? (OHL Fanboys, starting at 8:00)
You likely already hear that little voice saying, "that will never happen." What is a blog, though, if not a place to bring forth outsider ideas?
It makes sense from a promotional standpoint. The studio panels on both rights holders would be an ideal setting to hold each drawing. It would give the CHL a chance to have its own version of a March Madness darling such as Wichita State or Florida Gulf Coast that made its way through a skein of best-of-one rounds.
For argument's sake, each tier could take place at the following points in the calendar:
— First round in mid-to-late October
— Second round around Remembrance Day (which is often a tie-in for the CHL)
— Third round in early December, before the talent exodus for world junior championship selection camps
— Fourth round (quarter-finals) in late January, after players moved at the deadline have had 2-3 weeks to adapt to their new teams
— Fifth round (semifinals) around the Family Day holiday weekend, the dog days of the CHL season
— Sixth round (final) in early to mid-March.
Financing this is a stretch at best, and you can already imagine the 'what if Acadie-Bathurst has to play Prince George?' ripostes from people who barely think of either junior outpost otherwise. (There might be a way to build in a travel limit for the early rounds, but we're committed to the bit here.)
Every game of the tournament could take on the air of Game 7, since 20-minute overtime periods until there's a goal scorer would be required. Wouldn't that be something to present to a Sportsnet or TVA Sports in October, November or January? It's a way for junior puck to look distinct from the NHL, instead of a squeaky-voiced teen imitator.
The offshoots could include shaving some games off the too-long regular seasons (72 games in the WHL, 68 in the QMJHL and OHL) and dumping the Subway Super Series. Not that either notion played into this blue-ribbon proposal.
In a CHL Cup, as Thompson's dubbed it, the megateams of the moment might be matched up early and take out each other. The fun here is just in imaginging who would come out on top. We don't know; that's the point.
For instance, the aforementioned Sting are the type of team that could benefit. Sarnia, after moving star Anthony DeAngelo to Sault Ste. Marie in January, was a tough out against the Erie Otters in the first round. Realistically, though, making Connor McDavid and Co. sweat out a five-game win was the most they could expect.
Perhaps it's an avenue that benefits a team deep with draft-year dandies that might be a year away from winning a league title. Having the Brandon Wheat Kings or Niagara IceDogs in this season's tournament would be wonderful exposure for next season's Memorial Cup. Or, perhaps it would have been a way that the Otters of McDavid, Dylan Strome and Travis Dermott could have qualified.
There would be a better storyline than the non-story generated by awarding a berth to the team with the most seats and a half-decent team. Additional seating capacity fever is not, and never will be, a thing.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.