Should the Nanaimo Clippers make it to the Fred Page Cup final in the spring, they will be battle-tested and battle-weary.
The B.C. Hockey League’s board of governors approved a new playoff format last week that creates very different paths through the post-season.
Island Division teams have it tough. They need to make the playoffs, win two rounds to capture the division banner, and then need to get past the Mainland Division champs to reach the league final. In the Interior Division, not only do the top two teams get a bye, but that division’s champ doesn’t have to play a ‘conference’ final. There’s a likelihood that the Interior Division champion will only need to win three best-of-seven series to capture the Fred Page Cup, whereas the other finalist needs to win four best-of-seven series.
Another inconsistency is the possibility that the fifth-place team from the Mainland Division can ‘cross over’ into the Interior Division brackets. The fifth-place team on the Island doesn’t have that same right.
“I think that the playoff structure that’s been chosen probably shows how much the governors in the league didn’t like the previous one,” said Mike Vandekamp, Clippers coach.
He said the extra series is “huge – it’s very difficult to win a best-of-seven series in hockey” and declined to say if he prefers this new system to the previous one.
John Grisdale, BCHL commissioner, said the league has tried many different formats and has determined that “nothing is perfect.”
The league’s governors decide on the playoff format, then the league office figures out the logistics. Grisdale said some governors supported the Round 3 round robin that was used the past three years, but the majority didn’t – fans had trouble getting their heads around it and coaches didn’t like coaching that format.
So the first-round bye in the Interior, which created problems in the past, is back.
“There’s an imbalance in the number of games to get to the final, absolutely, and that’s why it’s never worked before. That’s one of the reasons why no one liked it…” Grisdale said. “They didn’t want a bye, and this year the bye could be up to 18 days.”
He said there are discussions about realignment next season that could lead to just one playoff bye in the Interior, though nothing has been finalized. More significant realignment, to even out the divisions, is cost-prohibitive because of the extra ferry travel it would create for Island and mainland teams, and Grisdale said there would be other drawbacks.
“In the playoffs you could have a Round 1 where you don’t have any rival games, say, Victoria playing Coquitlam and you lose the benefit of the rival,” he said. “In the case of Nanaimo, if you look back, in the last couple of years there’s been great Round 1s with Alberni and very profitable for both clubs.”
Vandekamp said the BCHL’s playoff-format decisions are made with financial implications – expenses and potential revenue – at top of mind.
“There’s a cost factor and that’s why the decision’s made. It’s completely made around dollars and cents and at the end of the day, there’s almost no point in looking at it any other way,” Vandekamp said. “Because if dollars and cents didn’t matter, we would probably have an entirely different alignment, an entirely different playoff format … but it’s a sign of the times when you have to sacrifice competitive balance in order to balance the books.”
He and his team felt last season’s playoff format put them at a disadvantage, as they got one fewer game than opponents to try to advance. Under this new format, again, someone could end up feeling hard done by.
“If we’re lucky enough to get in there and get involved in the playoffs, then I guess we’ll have to win the games that you play and not worry too much about what’s going on elsewhere,” Vandekamp said.