Wednesday, June 04, 2008

One Game Away From Ultimate: A Real Championship Game

May was an interesting month for me sportswise. May, after all, is a month where it's all going on. The NHL playoffs are in full swing at the same time as the European football (soccer) leagues coming to a close. In the past, there was baseball too, but I try to forget that now.

Well, this year the month of May really did storm in like a lion, but it's gone out with a whimper that I am not even sure I can attach a lamb's vocal prowess to. With the Habs still in at the beginning of the month, every evening was hockey, every day was thinking about issues for the blog – live, sleep, drink hockey. The month wears on, the Habs go out, but we still have a thrilling last day finish to the Premiership, an all-English Champion's league final and a very interesting FA Cup match-up on the menu. The month ended with nothing.

Oh, did I forget to mention that there was NHL hockey beyond early May. If I did it's because I hardly noticed. Obviously, one should expect a defeated fan to withdraw for a while, but as I faced the prospect of watching a conference final game or even Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, I usually came to the conclusion that I had better things to do.

This can't be a good thing, surely. I mean, I think I would qualify as having a well-above average interest in hockey. After all, I read and write about the sport even into the summer months. I even watch the draft... For the average fan, where's the attraction? Pittsburgh and Detroit fans excepted, how many fans of other teams give a toss about the conference finals, about the final?

Very few is my guess.

My May experience did, however, put all these sports issues into a new light. While I totally withdrew from watching my favourite sport, I still found loads of enjoyment in sporting events – even after my favourite teams had been excluded from contention (Liverpool and Villa, of course).

The lesson I learned (at least when I wasn't blinded by complete bias for anything the Canadiens do) is that the spectacle of the sport matters too. Watching a trophy game between Cardiff City and Portsmouth FC turns out to be a heck of a lot more invigorating than Dallas vs. Detroit in a conference final. I would much rather watch a meaningful game for 90+ minutes than a whole series of games over 2 months that leave me with a feeling of "let's get this over with".

Interestingly, this brought me back to the history of the Stanley Cup – which believe it or not, was not just a device to get people around North America to watch 2500+ more or less meaningless games before watching the one where a team hoists the reward. After all, it's not as if 10,000 teams play in knockouts to get this far. We are talking about a mere 30 teams:

14 teams play 82 games for nothing
8 more play 86-89
4 more still 90-96
2 more 94-103
And one lucky team plays 98-110 games to prolong their agony

The last team standing is rewarded for not forgetting why they started the competition in the first place.

Is the final too long?
The Cup was, at first, a Challenge Cup. It stayed this way for the first 21 years of competition, in fact. What made this era very interesting (apart from the fact that Montreal clubs dominated) was that the Cup was handed out based on the result of a single, all-to-play-for game.

Of course, it was a bit more complicated than that – it was actually the league that held the Cup. So, the winner of the league from which the trophy holders originated played for the Cup in the regular season. The Challenge game was a game at which the winner of a rival league could challenge for the Championship.

Although you can see the seeds of the current format within those pre-NHL cup years, it is the number of games taken to settle the championship which intrigue me. At the very beginning, the Cup was awarded based on a single game, 21 years later they had accommodated both teams need for revenue by making the final a 2-game total-goals

Interestingly, . It stayed that way until the mid 20s, and was a best-of-three right up until 1937 (43 years after the first Cup final) and 20 years into the NHL.

So why is this history important? Well, it's interesting for one thing. But it also blows that old traditionalist riposte out of the water when they try to suggest that best-of-seven is the be-all and end-all.

My personal view is that there need to be more meaningful games in this affair, not more meaningless ones. Obviously every game matters, but to a casual observer or a non-partisan nutcase hockey fan, even, how important is Game 2 or 3? How exciting is Game 4 when it's not elimination? Game 5?

The playoffs are too long: no question
While there is some merit to the argument that a final series should be longer, there is not much logic to be uttered for the 7-game series over all 14 other playoff series.

The history of the best-of-seven moneymaker throughout the playoffs is even briefer than it is for the final. The league did use best-of-sevens during the original six era, but that amounted to three series. When the league expanded beyond 12 teams, they took a step back and added an extra round with best-of-threes to start. They gradually moved to best-of-fives in the 1980a and finally best-of-sevens – but only in 1986!

If you think about it, is there much reason for a best-of-seven between a first and eight place team after they have battled through 82 games already to prove their worth? Couldn't the first round be settled in a best-of-three? A two-game total goals, maybe? or, for the truly daring, a single game?

Ditto the second round and the conference finals.

Perhaps, if the first round was shortened, the appetite would be such that an escalating number of games would fit: Round 1 (2-game), Round 2 (Best-of-three), Round 3 (Best-of-five) and a longer final. I would go shorter throughout...

The spectacle
I have been asking myself, if there is only one trophy that ultimately matters in hockey, why do we need to go through with 8 months and 100 games worth of play to see who wins?

How about from another angle:

What do the Super Bowl and the World Cup Final have in common?

Well, they both pretend to be the pinnacle of achievement for footballers the world over (Of course, only in one of the sporting events do players actually use their feet for more than 8 seconds, but that's not the point).

They are also the biggest events in sports. People take notice. People plan their lives to fit these events in. People care. And, not only people from the participating cities or countries, but from across North America and the World, respectively.

I for one would like to watch more games where both teams could walk away with hardware. Right now we have to hope for Game 7s. A few tweaks (or a 1-game match) and the NHL could coax Game 7s right off the bat.

Is it only me? What do you all think?

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