There's some absurdity involved with the Saskatoon Blades waiting 51 days before getting a crack a at a national title, but it's no more absurd than the MasterCard Memorial Cup tournament itself as a concept.
Traditionally, champions at club-level hockey are determined by seven-game playoff series. Three of the four Memorial Cup teams have to go through four rounds before getting a chance to sniff the tournament. The Blades, who host the 2013 version of the event, were swept in four games by the Medicine Hat Tigers in the first round last week.
Like Neate, I get that the concept of the Cup tournament is more of a showcase event for the league's top teams. Last season, the London Knights won 67 games — more than any other CHL club, while the Shawinigan Cataractes won just 56. Still, the Cats capitalized on their opportunity hosting the 2012 MasterCard Memorial Cup and get the "champs" label despite bowing out in the second round of their series.
Does this bode well for Saskatoon? In the three Memorial Cup finals I've attended, 2007, 2011 and 2012, one of the teams has been the host team. In each case, neither was the champion of their respective league, although the 2007 Vancouver Giants and 2011 Mississauga St.-Michael's Majors entered the tournament through a less-embarrassing path to the backdoor by losing in overtime of Game 7 of their league championship, not the first or second round of the playoffs.
Is there a certain honour in winning those first two rounds? Years down the line, the well-maintained banners that hang in home rinks across Canada have the details washed out like stains. The largest pennant in the Pacific Coliseum is the 2007 Memorial Cup banner. It's easy to forget that the 2006 version of the club that won the Ed Chynoweth Cup rolled through the regular season and playoffs, losing just two games on the road to that season's tourney in Moncton.
It's unreasonable to think that a team that has more success in a short tournament in the Memorial Cup is more worthy of praise than a league champion. In the same respect, I don't want to besmirch the accomplishments of the Cataractes last season, but North American sports are generally predisposed to elevate the importance of performance in a single game to the level of mysticism. Over the 80 or so games a good junior hockey team will play over the course of a season, an elite team could win 60 and an above-average team could win 50. That might be the difference between a London and a Plymouth in the OHL or between Portland and Kamloops in the WHL. The differences are noticeable after a long stretch of games, but in a short series or a short tournament, there's much more chance of a random result.
Where the talent disparity is greater at the junior level than, say, the National Hockey League, where a programmer found that due to randomness, the best team in any given season should only win the Stanley Cup 22 per cent of the time. The seven-game series in hockey is about a perfect length in that one or two fluke results can't determine the outcome, but there's still a small potential for the exciting randomness that can help an underdog advance. There's always the chance of that unquantifiable and unpredictable slice of chance.
In the general sense, though, think that a clearly inferior Everett team managed to take two games against the Portland Winterhawks in the first round. Over the 72-game season, Portland won 27 more games and the relative goal differential between the two clubs was +271. But Everett won the first game of the series after Austin Lotz caught lightning in a bottle and made 55 saves. In a single elimination tournament like the NCAA Tournament or the Memorial Cup playoff round, Portland, possibly the best team in the CHL this season, are done.
I don't see the tournament in Saskatoon as a chance for the Saskatoon Blades to redeem themselves. Like the Cataractes last season, they were objectively a good hockey team this season. They recovered from a brutal start by posting an 18-game winning streak in the second half of the season, and the Cataractes were fighting for the top position in our Dynamic Dozen rankings with the Saint John Sea Dogs one year ago. Teams that host the tournament make a point to load up to give themselves better odds in the tournament more so than they do to enter the tournament after winning three playoff rounds as opposed to four.
With so much attention placed on a 10-day, four-team tournament that marks the only time teams play interleague games in a hockey season, there's obviously a tendency to overanalyze, but the results represent more signal than noise. If the CHL is looking to avoid the ignominy of seeing a team swept out of the first round in its annual championship tournament, it wouldn't play a small-sample tournament to determine a winner.
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