While the NHL was preparing for the Stanley Cup Final; on the other side of the world, Finland were victorious in the IIHF World Championship final. The Finns won gold for only the third time, with victory over Canada. Russia beat the Czech Republic in the bronze medal game. Well done Team Finland, and to every team that took part, you provided a nice distraction for those of us whose teams didn’t make the playoffs.
Therein lies the problem. Unless your team is in the hunt for Lord Stanley’s mug, there’s nothing really else for your team to play for. Sure, there’s the Presidents’ Trophy, but nobody considered the winner of the NHL to be the team that lifts the Presidents’ Trophy. The competition in the league is really just about who can win the biggest piece of silverware, or who can win the draft lottery. In the 1920s, multiple leagues competed to win the Stanley Cup before the NHL became the de-facto keeper of the cup. The trophy was considered to be the prize awarded to the best hockey team, not just the best in one league.
To draw my usual parallel to football (soccer), there are a plethora of club level competitions that teams can take part in. Aside from the Premier League, teams can compete internationally in the UEFA Champions’ League, the UEFA Europa League and occasionally the FIFA Club World Cup. Domestically, there’s the FA Cup and the EFL Cup, both of which are open to multiple tiers of football, including some semi-pro and amateur. Then there’s the Charity Shield, although nobody really cares about that.
It feels harsh to say, but the NHL is growing stale. Sure there are new teams added occasionally, and sometimes and lunatic owner might do something stupid/hilarious. But ultimately it’s the same teams playing the same teams for the same trophy. There are five professional hockey leagues in North America, but they don’t intermingle, and Uncle Gary is missing a trick. Of course only one team can win the cup, but for many teams that didn’t clinch a playoff place, there’s nothing to look forward to.
There are potentially four trophies a top-flight team can win each season, and they’re all separate competitions. Even teams in the lower leagues get to mix things up with the big boys. There are 20 teams in the Premier League, but 92 teams compete for the FA Cup, the oldest competition in football. Cupsets are real, big teams are often turned over by teams from the lower leagues. Imagine if that happened in the NHL? Imagine if the ECHL’s Brampton Beast knocked the Toronto Maple Leafs out of a cup competition? Twitter would explode.
Logistically it would be a nightmare, but not impossible. It would also require a big change to the existing schedule, i.e. less regular seasons games in lieu of more tournament games. Start with a competition between the NHL and AHL then expand it from there. Hell, call it the Bettman trophy if you need have to. Hockey needs something that brings hockey together, and brings new life into a competition that hasn’t really changed since the NHL took responsibility for the Stanley Cup.
It’s time to introduce a competition that integrates and unites every level of hockey, each team with an opportunity to face a different challenge. What could these competitions look like?
For the Champions’ and Europa Leagues, entry is awarded to the best teams from the top tiers of various different footballing associations across Europe. The nuances and exemptions are many, but essentially not every team has to play every stage i.e. previous performance can mean a team will skip the early qualifiers. This can translate to hockey. Take the best four teams from the NHL, KHL, SHL and EIHL (or whatever) and you’ve got a 16 team knockout competition. If you stick to a pure knockout model, then the most a team will play is four extra games, minimising travel time. Depending on success, the competition can be expanded to include other countries. Spread play throughout the season.
The big concern about a domestic inter-league cup is the standard of hockey. The NHL is the best league for a reason, right? The top teams are often the teams the teams that end up in the finals, but not always. In 2008, the FA Cup was played between Portsmouth, who’d finished the Premier League in 15th, and Swansea, who’d just finished top of the third tier of English Football. In 2013 2nd place Manchester City lost to 17th placed Wigan Athletic. Wigan became the first team to win the FA Cup and get relegated in the same season.
What teams gain from playing in the various cup tournaments isn’t just the chance at silverware. it’s the added exposure these teams get as they advance. Where applicable; smaller teams often benefit from the TV and gate money that big games attract. Last year non-league Warrington Town drew Exeter City, a team four leagues higher, and beat them to make the second round. This David Vs Goliath tie piqued the interest of the nation and the game broadcast on national TV. The professional team from Exeter was knocked out with a with a header scored by a local plasterer.
This is the magic of cup tournaments, and something that both the NHL and wider hockey world needs to embrace.