If the COVID-19 pandemic offered junior hockey fans anything, it was a brief two-year reprieve from the constant chatter of changing the format of the Memorial Cup, where fans search for ways to remove the host team from the competition after every win.
Since 1983, the Memorial Cup tournament has been comprised of the winners of the Ontario Hockey League, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the Western Hockey League, and a host team. This year, the host team, the Saint John Sea Dogs, happened to be eliminated in the first round, but by virtue of being the host team, they had a secure spot in junior hockey’s biggest club-team tournament.
Since the host team began participating in 1983, there have been 37 tournaments played, not including the one currently underway in Saint John. In that time, 10 host teams have won the tournament, making up 27 percent of the champions. However, only seven of those hosts won the tournament without first winning their league, meaning that historically, the host has only won 19 percent of the time when they take the free pass.
Of course, when the host team wins the league, it means the runner-up gets a spot in the Memorial Cup. Only once has the runner-up ever won the tournament, coming when the Quebec Ramparts won in 2006. If you include the runner-up into the “undeserved champion” category people have created to describe the Memorial Cup champion that didn’t win their league, you only have about 22 percent of winners. Given the structure of the tournament, each team has a 25 percent chance to win, and historically, the host comes in well below that mark. But yet, every time the host wins, fans around the country cry foul, suggesting they be taken out of the tournament entirely.
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But now that the host team has been guaranteed a spot for nearly 40 years, is there ever a chance of it going back? Would it make sense to find an alternative? Is there anything that could be done to dangle the carrot over the host’s head to incentivize them to do better in their league? These are all fair questions, but the reality is that taking steps that could eliminate the host team before games are played could be damaging to both the host, and the CHL overall.
Junior hockey is a very local thing. Fan bases are not large, nor do they span across the province, let alone the country. It’s a very different thing compared to the NHL, and many people who tune into the Memorial Cup because they have nothing better to do on that night might not completely understand that. You can’t compare this tournament to something like the Canadian Football League’s Grey Cup, where fans travel across the country regardless of who is playing. Interest is driven by the hometown team, and removing them from the tournament could have unintended consequences.
The Memorial Cup relies heavily on the local fan base of the team to buy tickets, and in nearly every single instance, they are happy to do that just to have a chance to watch their favourite team compete for the highest honour in junior hockey. With some of these host cities lacking in hotel space, they don’t have a choice, and Saint John is a great example of that.
Sure, the hardcore junior hockey fans will buy tickets no matter who is playing, but can we say with certainty that those casual fans will come out if the hometown team isn’t there? During the regular season, the Sea Dogs averaged 2,643 people in attendance, while in the Memorial Cup, they have been well in excess of 4,000 every night. There is a noticeable boost in attendance when the Sea Dogs are one of the teams, however, as both of their games so far have cracked 5,000. As of Saturday morning, the Sea Dogs games have averaged 5,133 people in attendance, while games that don’t include the host have averaged 4,733, a jump of nearly 10 percent.
This, in theory, doesn’t seem terrible if you clipped the host. The attendance is fine in games without the Sea Dogs, this year, so why keep them? One of the important things to remember is how the ticket packages work. Although you can buy single-game tickets or smaller packages, you could get packages that included the entire tournament for $390 plus fees in the second deck, or $460 plus fees in the first deck for this tournament in Saint John. By comparison, to buy a single ticket to the Memorial Cup Final, which is now standing room only, would run you $103.50 plus fees. The economical choice for the Saint John locale was the full tournament package, aiding the attendance to games that don’t include the Sea Dogs.
Again, you have to ask how many of those fans would be willing to drop that kind of cash, especially in a world where it costs nearly $100 to fill a small car with gas, on tickets to a tournament that their favourite team isn’t even playing in. It could possibly lead to increased issues selling tickets to the event, and could lead to small crowds, something the Canadian Hockey League should have no desire to show off to the rest of Canada and the world. This, of course, would lead to reduced revenues from the event for the host, and that opens another can of worms.
The host of each Memorial Cup isn’t just handed out at random, teams make their bids, and the league selects from what they have received. There are standards for the host’s facilities, and we have seen numerous occasions where a team is turned down because of their arena. That most recently happened just this year, when Kelowna was passed on as a host for the 2023 Memorial Cup, and it was instead awarded to the Kamloops Blazers. The Rockets released a statement the night of the announcement, saying the arena underwent an audit that found “significant deficiencies that needed to be upgraded for the facility to meet the CHL standards for hosting the Memorial Cup.”
In order to host the tournament, teams and their cities routinely put a lot of money into their arena, including the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds who made one million dollars worth of upgrades to the Sault Memorial Gardens before they even knew they would be the hosts. That tournament was never played thanks to the pandemic, and Sault Ste. Marie wasn’t named the host anyway, but it still outlines the understanding that money needs to be spent to secure the bid.
The tradeoff for that money spent, of course, is the revenue from the tournament. But that’s where things get more complicated, especially considering the previous point regarding ticket sales. As it stands right now, the combination of the revenue and a chance for the hometown team to compete for the Memorial Cup make it worth it, but with both of those compromised without the host, how willing would teams be to invest?
There is way more than what meets the eye for this issue. Yes, it can be frustrating to see a team that got a “free ticket” to the Memorial Cup take home the trophy, or take away chances from the league champions, but it’s important to remember that these league champions already have a ring on their fingers. This tournament is unpredictable, and that’s one of the things that makes it so much fun.
Having the host take part is important. It allows the community to latch on and fall in love with the team, and hopefully the league if the impression left can be long-lasting. Let’s leave the tournament how it is, and enjoy the week and a half of some of the top junior hockey talent in the country facing off against one another. Host or otherwise, this is a tournament that the players, staff, and fans won’t forget any time soon.
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