My fellow Canadians regularly ask me why I watch March Madness. Usually, I tell them, “It’s the greatest sports tournament in the world” and then I spend a while qualifying that by telling them what I think of the NCAA. (I regret to say, by watching this year’s March Madness on cable, I am indirectly supporting the NCAA. But by morals are flexible anyway.) As you might imagine, this is not a convincing argument. So let’s try a different tact.
The reason I watch March Madness religiously is because, occasionally, stuff like what happened last night happens. What happened? The 63rd or so best team in the Division I system beat the supposedly best team in the system. But they didn’t just beat them, they destroyed them. Led by, I kid you not, a 5’8″ point guard and one Jairus Lyles, who suddenly couldn’t miss from literally anywhere on the floor, a unheard of team beat the supposed best team in the country by 20 points. It was the greatest sports upset I have ever been witness to, it was one of the greatest upsets in the history of North American team sports, and the reason I watch a tournament where literally anything can happen. Things that seem impossible happen, and that makes March Madness utterly unique. If the NCAA weren’t so reprehensible, it might be the greatest thing in sports. (It basically is, but you have to pretend that it’s not run by a monopoly which refuses to compensate the very people that make it successful.)
My experience last night – and every March – brings me to something I have been beating my dead horse about to anyone who would listen for years. I should note, it’s not my idea. I stole it from Bob McCowan and he likely stole it from someone else.
Memorial May Madness
The Memorial Cup is the most important amateur junior hockey trophy in North America. Every year, the Canadian Hockey League awards the Memorial Cup to the winner of a round robin tournament held in May (during the NHL playoffs). The tournament is held in a smaller community, normally, and brings lots of money to that community. It is not watched by that many people, and it oddly features the champions of the three “Major Junior” Canadian hockey leagues – the Ontario Hockey League, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the Western Hockey League – and the host team, a team from one of those three league’s whose city successfully bid for the tournament that year. So, basically, you have a round robin tournament featuring possibly the three best junior teams in North America (some would claim the world) and some other team that may be awful or maybe great, depending on the luck of the draw. (I.e. depending upon whether or not this year’s host city happened to also be a decent team, which does not factor into the decision of what team is hosting the tournament, to the best of my knowledge.)
So, there are a few things wrong with the Memorial Cup tournament as it stands:
- only four teams compete for the Memorial Cup
- the round robin format is boring, especially given how few teams are involved
- the round robin format is not going to draw Canadians (and other hockey fans) away from the NHL playoffs
- one of the teams has a reasonable chance of being bad enough that they do not belong
- but worse, the bad team could conceivably win the Memorial Cup due to small sample luck (this has happened).
The positive side is not as compelling: the Memorial Cup is a great economic boon to the host community and the tournament has been held this way for a long, long time.
My idea, modified from McCowan’s idea, is to turn the Memorial Cup into a 32-team, semi-invitational junior hockey tournament open to multiple leagues:
- Shorten the CHL playoffs and take the winners of all three leagues, their runners up and the teams who lost the semi-finals and seed them according to their finishes (12 teams)
- Take the Frozen Four participants, seeded by results (4 teams)
- Take the David Johnston University Cup champion and its runner up and seed them (2 teams)
- Invite the remaining fourteen teams from any league willing to participate (the CHL, the NCAA, U sports but also any European junior leagues interested and sending their champions)
The winner gets the Memorial Cup.
The first year, the seeding would be extremely difficult, because we really don’t know how much better the CHL teams are than the NCAA teams are (if they are), and how much better the NCAA teams are than the U Sports teams are. But the initial tournaments would generate enough data to better seed teams in the future, especially if fewer leagues participate than what I would prefer (which is all the top junior leagues).
Like March Madness, earlier rounds could be held in multiple smaller Canadian communities, and the final round in a city, thereby increasing the economic impact of the tournament, eliminating the major objection to changing the way the Memorial Cup is currently awarded.
Why It Will Never Happen
Aside form the inertia of “We’ve always done it this way!” my tournament will never happen for many reasons, two of which I think are the most salient:
- There is no way that a North American tournament could be organized featuring teams from leagues in different countries in North America. I cannot ever imagine the NCAA agreeing to this, and I have a pretty hard time imagining European teams agreeing to this too. Even if the NCAA is the only hold out, I have a hard time imagining the CHL and one other organization (say, U Sports) agreeing to anything.
- It is also likely extremely naive of me to assume that the CHL would want to open up the Memorial Cup to teams outside of the CHL. I mean, why would they do that?
- Finally, the college teams, which I feel like would be an essential part of making this tournament “much watch” (so that we could settle arguments about whether the CHL or the NCAA is the better route for prospects, for example), have already ended their seasons weeks earlier (months, depending upon when the tournament is held). Can NCAA and U Sports teams be expected to reunite in the spring, when exams are over, to play in a tournament? (Probably not.)
I understand that the logistics of this tournament basically an impossible pipe dream. But each year, when I watch the Madness and lose myself in incredible, one-possession/buzzer-beater games, and some of the greatest upsets in the history of team sports, I always say to myself “Imagine if there was a hockey tournament like this? Canada would lose its damn mind.”