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London Knights ‘worst on-ice Memorial Cup host ever,’ but that is no reason to change the format

Neate Sager
Buzzing The Net

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Young London Knights fans partake in the Memorial Cup fanfest (Aaron Bell, OHL Images)

LONDON, Ont. — The patches of empty seats that one might see for Edmonton and Val-d'Or in the Memorial Cup semifinal on Friday are all the proof the tournament format is not about to change.

No amount of idealistic inveighing against the figurative 'going through the back door' host team berth to enter the Memorial Cup changes one obvious reality. Major junior hockey is a local game built on local following. Those who vote with their hearts, feet and disposable income do so out of love for their team. The Canadian Hockey League has the numbers that back it up; it knows, for instance, that traffic on league websites drops sharply during the playoffs as team by team is eliminated from the playoffs.

Why that is the case is something for a greater mind than I to tackle. It's the entrenched reality, and one wishes it would be acknowledged before the next time someone panders to popular sentiment by saying, after the fact, the host team didn't belong.

From Ken Campbell:

The Knights showing, combined with having undeserving teams winning the tournament, begs for a change in format. The problem now is that, of course, it’s all about money. The CHL has learned that it can make enormous amounts of money by holding the tournament in big junior markets that have big facilities. The Knights sold out their ticket packages for this year’s tournament for the equivalent of between $75 and $85 a game, which more than covers one week of wages for the average junior hockey player.

And as is the case with the World Junior Championship, smaller markets with older buildings have basically been frozen out. With next year’s Memorial Cup set for Quebec City and three of the past four in Mississauga, Saskatoon and London, there’s a pattern emerging here.

But that doesn’t mean the CHL has to hand the rich teams with the big budgets and the resources to get any player they want a Memorial Cup berth on a silver platter, too. Does the NCAA give the university in the host city a berth in the Final Four?

It’s about time the CHL changed its criteria for participating in the Memorial Cup. Why not award it to a city, with its team’s participation contingent on at least making the final four of the league in which it plays? That would guarantee a competitive team every time and more importantly, one that has actually come close to earning its spot in the tournament. I wouldn’t mind if the CHL made it even more restrictive, limiting the participants to the league champion and runner-up in the host league regardless of where the event is taking place. (The Hockey News)

Campbell's coming from a good place. Yet while the Canadian Hockey League is big business, but it's not NCAA big. The Final Four example is irrelevant. The market for college basketball is much bigger than the CHL's. There is also a huge difference between a one-weekend commitment and a 10-day commitment.

It has been suggested that the CHL could play round-robin doubleheaders. A shorter staging period, though, is counterproductive since (a) the players probably need the rest time at the end of their already way-too-long seasons and (b) stretching the event over two weekends is probably more attractive to sponsors and affiliated businesses.

Getting back to the point, the London Knights being "the worst on-ice Memorial Cup host ever" is not a reason to change the format. Perhaps it's just a hockey problem that Mark Hunter and Dale Hunter will spend the off-season reveiwing. Their team had more than a month to prepare yet mailed it in at the Memorial Cup.

There's another, better column to be written on whether that is the inevitable byproduct of an out-of-whack Canadian hockey development system. From boy to man, an elite player plays 100-plus games year after year. There's also the desire to get drafted as high as possible, get signed by an NHL club as quickly as possible and be in The Show as quickly as possible.

The effect of that might be that by the time players are 18 or 19 and have won a championship, it doesn't hold the same thrill. I don't know if that happened to the Knights, although Val-d'Or coach Mario Durocher believes it happened in 2012 to the Saint John Sea Dogs. Saint John defended their QMJHL title and was pegged as a favourite at the Memorial Cup. They lost in the round-robin to the younger Knights and then lost in the semi to eventual champ Shawinigan. A surprise to many, but maybe not to those who could see Saint John wasn't possessed with the same territorial imperative it had in 2011.

"We played them in the semifinals when I was with Chicoutimi and they were not as hungry as the first year," Durocher said in passing on Wednesday.

Many of the Knights knew the carrot that was being dangled from a stick still tastes like a carrot. That is the macro problem, if indeed that's even the case. The CHL, though, can't foresee that happening when it has to pick a host team a year in advance. And those on the outside looking in often can't see it coming.

Meanwhile, CHL fans' rooting interests are entrenched. That's why the Memorial Cup is stuck with a two-tiered system. Call it a Canadian conundrum.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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