Some of the best hockey below the NHL takes places this weekend in Saskatoon. You might not watch it and it won't be your fault.
It's no newsflash that Canadian university hockey, men's and women's alike, is a well-kept secret in this country. It is as difficult to market to a national audience as it can difficult for even a team ranked as high as No. 2 in the country to get out of its conference playoffs, amirite, Western Mustangs? Sportsnet will carry the last two pool games Saturday from the University Cup along with the national championship game at 7:30 p.m. ET on Sunday. Any curious channel flippers who stumble across it should very well lucky into a thriller. It seldom gets more heart-in-mouth than it did last March, when McGill's Evan Vossen scored the overtime goal to beat Western for the Redmen's first national title in 135 years of varsity hockey.
Still, there's a definite disconnect between the public prestige of our collegiate hockey championship and what it takes to win it. The essential truth is that it's not what's inside, it's how it's presented to people.
It's way too blue-sky to expect the University Cup could be as big as the MasterCard Memorial Cup, but it could be something closer to appointment viewing. The public recognizes major junior hockey an essential stop on the Canadian hockey-hero assembly line, a place to see the NHL stars of tomorrow, yadda-yadda. Sceres of those players, including some who will eventually make The Show from CIS, compete for the University Cup.
The calibre of hockey is serious enough to prepare players for the AHL, ECHL and European pro leagues. The lineups of the six teams convening in Saskatoon include a few who were integral for Memorial Cup championship teams not too long ago, such as UNB Varsity Reds defenceman Ben Shutron (2009 Windsor Spitfires) and Trois-Rivières Patriotes forward Pier-Olivier Morin (2012 Shawinigan Cataractes). They didn't get worse at hockey since they were holding their own against future pros.
Clarity and collaboration
So how do you get people to watch? Two breakdowns seem to be the tourney's convoluted six-team format. There has to be a host team because you cannot put on any sports event in Canada without a host-team berth. Everything below the the NHL, CFL and curling is heavily localized, thanks to the wider public and Toronto-dominated national media's neutral zone trap of indifference. The other is the lack of collaboration between CIS, the Canadian Hockey League and Hockey Canada, the three stakeholders in promotion of university hockey and the players who make it great.
On the first count, put yourself in a TV programmer's shoes and take a boo how the University Cup schedule reads:
Saturday, March 16
1:30 pm Game 5 – Winners Game 1 vs. Saint Mary’s (SPORTSNET)
8:00 pm Game 6 – Winners Game 2 vs. UQTR (SPORTSNET)
How do you promote a broadcast where you will not know who will be one of the teams playing until fewer than 48 hours before puckdrop? The way the University Cup works is the highest and lowest seeds in each pool face off on Thursday. The losing team has to do some mind-over-matter regrouping to play the middle seed Friday. The winner gets an extra day of the rest. The pool winners play for the gold medal.
It's clear as mud to anyone who follows this level of hockey. Perhaps that's fine. But CIS and new CEO Pierre Lafontaine need a simpler setup if they want more people to watch the University Cup. It is the climax of the CIS championship season, which will become more important should it find a single TV partner for all of its major championships.
The solution is obvious. Seed a Frozen Four with the four champions. Hypothetically, Sportsnet could hype the hell out of a David-Goliath matchup between the Cinderella Waterloo Warriors, very few of whom played major junior, against the perennially powerful Alberta Golden Bears. The other semi between Trois-Rivières and UNB would match two of the most successful teams in the country with numerous former Quebec League players renewing hostilities.
A win-win is conference playoffs would have stakes again: no wild cards, no host team. Last week's Saint Mary's-UNB conference final down east was anticlimactic since
In CIS' defence, the format it has now is financially necessary, plus having assigned wild cards keeps its regional associations from being more feudal than usual. You could argue needing a host team is a crutch, though.
In the big picture, though, improving the lot of university hockey boils down to getting more people to appreciate it. The second part of this is that, from the looks of it, the Canadian Hockey League promotes how it supports former players with their post-secondary education. Why does the interest stop with sending out a press release, for instance, about how many of a particular league's grads play in Canada West?
This ties back to changing the channel on the endless CHL vs. NCAA war. It's so not about which offers a better shot at a long-term NHL career. It's about the Canadian education system vs. the U.S. education system. Yet CHL players who move on to CIS have admitted to having little concept of university hockey until they realizes it's their most realistic post-junior option.
There's no way for CIS to go it alone and play the University Cup in Saskatoon without a guarantee the Saskatchewan Huskies (this weekend's host team) would be there. That's too much risk for a small organization to carry alone.
How about this? That's why CIS, the CHL and Hockey Canada should get together. Ergo, that's where the CHL and CIS should partner. Who knows how the financials would work, but that's no reason to dismiss the idea post-haste. Play a Frozen Four-formatted University Cup in a major junior building. (I can already hear some OHL GM's heels digging into the ground at the thought of being told they'll have to be out of the building on the last weekend of their regular season, but funny thing about hockey, exactly 50 per cent of teams face that every season.)
It could be part of the dues-paying to host the Memorial Cup, the ultimate marketing exercise — sell out an arena to perhaps watch four out-of-town teams. Hypothetically the Barrie Colts, whose former captain Colin Behenna plays for Waterloo, would boost their case to host in 2014 if they did a good job with the U-Cup.
It wouldn't necessarily have to be in a centre with a university team. Because it's about getting the CIS game out of the university sports bubble, while putting the product in front of more eyeballs . Sportsnet has a slightly less difficult sell with a four-team tourney. And a championship with great history gets a boost in profile.
Just a thought. It's not even a 2013 idea, maybe it's a 2018 or 2020 idea.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.