Brainstorming ways for CHL to oust 'loser berth'

Brayden Schenn and the Brandon Wheat Kings likely won't have anyone questioning if they belong a next month's Memorial Cup, nor should they.

This isn't so much about the Wheaties, as it is about debunking the myth of uncompetitive host teams at the Memorial Cup. The debate crops up every season at tournament time, since on general principle (cue Reggie Dunlop: you gotta earn it, Killer), even if your attitude is right.

By the numbers, the real concern for the CHL should be what to do in a seasons when the host wins its league and the runner-up falls heir to being the league rep. Dating back to 1995, when Brandon got the back-in berth, loser berth, whatever you wish to call it, after losing the WHL final to Kamloops, such teams have fared poorly: 7-15 with a minus-19 goal differential. The Patrick Roy-coached Quebec Remparts in 2006 are the only team to win when it was neither the host or league champion.

Dating back to 2000, hosts who did not win their league are 13-15, but have actually outscored their opposition 90-83. Why the fuss, granted that eight of those wins came from the 2004 Kelowna Rockets and '07 Vancouver Giants, who won it all? The poke in the right direction to write about this came from an observation Rod Pedersen made on his blog on Monday.

"Nobody's cheering more for the Brandon Wheat Kings right now than those in Tri-City and Vancouver. The Wheaties and Calgary Hitmen are all tied up at 1-1 in the WHL East Conference Final heading to Brandon but if Brandon WINS the series, then the West Conference champs get an automatic berth into the Memorial Cup. This, of course, is because the Wheat Kings are the Cup hosts."

It is what it is. Far be it to question why fans will be expected to pay to watch a best-of-seven series where neither team is playing for high, high stakes. Never mind it's kind of weird a team is cheering for its potential next playoff opponent, whose guts they'll hate after a six- or seven-game series.

So, what to do then? One modest suggestion is the CHL is missing a golden opportunity by just having a league runner-up advance. Hold a play-in game between two runners-up a couple nights before the tournament begins in earnest.

Think of how much casual interest in baseball spikes on Monday in the early fall when two teams are go to a tiebreaker game for a playoff spot, like last season's Detroit Tigers-Minnesota Twins barnburner. Why couldn't we have that in hockey? Two seasons ago, when Kitchener was host and OHL champion, why did the runner-up Belleville Bulls rate a berth over the other two league finalists, Lethbridge and Rouyn-Noranda?

Some Canadian sports leagues which do not let a runner-up automatically pass through the velvet rope because another team is hosting the national championship. This past season in Canadian Interuniversity Sport, two Ontario schools, Lakehead University in hockey and Carleton University in basketball, were hosting nationals. Ontario University Athletics decided that if either won its division (OUA has two in both men's hockey and hoops), then that berth would be decided by a third-place game.

In each case, a team from the other side of the league advanced. Two seasons ago in CIS basketball, Brock University went on to win the national championship after qualifying via that third-place game.

Why not have a special qualifier? The worst that could happen was that it's a good lead-in for a tournament which can get lost in the shuffle going up against the Stanley Cup playoffs.

I know, having a team travel across the country to possibly play only one game would cause mass hysteria. The CHL can picture money flying out the window if had a Memorial Cup tournament with only one team from the host league. (Some would argue, though, that major junior hockey has grown to the point where it doesn't have to have a host team.)

It seemed worth throwing out an idea which does not reduce the number of games in the tournament. Holding a Frozen Four would be the ultimate, but the CHL likes the 10-day format. This could drive interest.

For the record, here is how rep teams have fared in recent years;

2008: Belleville, 2-2, lost 9-0 in semifinal to Kitchener;

2006: Quebec, 3-1, beat Moncton (which was both) 6-2 in the final;

2005: Ottawa, 1-3, lost 7-4 in semifinal to Sidney Crosby and Rimouski;

1997: Chicoutimi, 0-3;

1996: Guelph, 0-3;

1995: Brandon, 1-3, lost semifinal 2-1 to Detroit.

And the host teams over the past decade, not counting the three who were league champions:

2009: Rimouski, 1-3, lost tiebreaker 6-4 to eventual champion Windsor;

2007: Vancouver, 4-1, beat Medicine Hat 3-1 in final;

2004: Kelowna, 4-0, beat Gatineau 2-1 in final;

2003: Quebec, 0-3;

2002: Guelph, 1-3, lost tiebreaker 4-3 to Victoriaville;

2001: Regina, 1-3, lost semifinal 5-4 in overtime to Val-d'Or;

2000: Halifax, 2-2, lost semifinal 6-3 to Barrie.

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