London debacle proof CHL must change Memorial Cup format

Ken Campbell
Knights

Suffice to say the London Knights will not be receiving any sympathy cards from their Ontario League competitors for their dismal showing in this year’s Memorial Cup. That’s because the Knights have long been seen as the spoiled rich kids of the OHL, making gobs of money off the backs of teenagers and getting pretty much any player they really want.

Still, though, their precipitous decline at the Memorial Cup has been astonishing. Banished in the second round of the playoffs by the Guelph Storm, who will be competing in the final Sunday afternoon, the Knights went 0-3 on home ice and scored four goals, while giving up 13. Their top six scorers – Max Domi, Chris Tierney, Bo Horvat, Ryan and Matt Rupert and Gemel Smith – combined for 195 goals and 472 points during the regular season, but had a combined zero goals and five assists in the Memorial Cup.

In doing so, the Knights officially became the worst on-ice Memorial Cup host ever. Only once before, in 2003, did the host team fail to win a game in the tournament. But at least the Quebec Remparts scored eight goals and allowed 12.

So that means the Knights have been victims of the Canadian Hockey League’s silly format that awards an automatic spot to the host team twice now. Two years ago, the Knights lost the championship game 2-1 in overtime to a Shawinigan Cataractes team that lost in the second round of the playoffs and gained entry into the tournament as the host team.

That’s an embarrassment. But no more so than in 1999 when the Ottawa 67’s were in the national tournament only because they were hosting it and, despite losing in the second round of the playoffs, went on to win the Memorial Cup. The Vancouver Giants won as hosts in 2007, but at least they lost in the WHL final, as did the Portland Winter Hawks in 1993. The Hull Olympiques won as the host in 1997 but they also entered the tournament as the champion of the Quebec League.

In fact, the format has forced organizers to occasionally change the rules to avoid embarrassment. In 1990, the Dukes of Hamilton were awarded the Memorial Cup, but had to withdraw at mid-season because they were one of the worst teams in Canadian junior hockey at the time. The OHL finalist Kitchener Rangers took their place and advanced to the final against the Eric Lindros-led Oshawa Generals and lost in overtime in front of a packed house at Copps Coliseum in one of the most successful Memorial Cups ever. Two years earlier, the Chicoutimi Sagueneens withdrew after they were defeated in the first round of the playoffs. They were replaced by the league finalist Shawinigan Cataractes, who went 0-3 and were outscored 20-6.

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.

We get that London got something of a raw deal this season. They played in the first division in OHL history where three teams – the Storm, the Knights and the Erie Otters – all had at least 100 points. And their path through the playoffs was much more difficult than that of the North Bay Battalion, who lost in the league final. But it’s simply not fair to give a berth to a team that didn’t make it halfway through the playoffs and sat and cooled its heels for more than a month while other teams battled their way to the Memorial Cup. It doesn’t make any sense.

If the CHL wants to look at itself as a big-league operation, and clearly it does, then it should act like one. And the only way to do that is to allow the teams that wear their big-boy pants to earn their way and participate in the league’s marquee event. And if a market can’t sell the event without the guarantee that its team will be playing, then it doesn’t deserve the privilege of hosting it.