The Ice Hockey Play-offs, what’s the hype?

So as the league season runs towards it’s end in 6 or 7 weeks the focus is starting to change for some teams already. Obviously for the top few teams there is still the chance of the league title to compete for but for teams 5 downwards I’d say it’s all about the play-offs now.

The play-offs are the final trophy of the season, the final chance to be a winner in the season but what’s the hype? I really don’t understand why the hype over the play-offs?

I wrote an article a few years back for a publication which in hindsight probably contained a sentiment it shouldn’t have given the officialness of where it was intended to go. I was asked to remove that bit before submitting it so it never saw the light of day but I’ll share it now.

I grew up and still am a massive cricket fan. I watched cricket for a long time before I got into hockey and therefore the easiest analogy of the ice hockey season for me to make is with cricket.

The league campaign = test match cricket – 54 games to decide the best team. No excuses over such a long competition. The game in it’s purest form.

The cup competition = one day international 50 over cricket – 18 games to decide the best teams to play in home and away semi-finals and then finals to decide the winner.

The play-offs = T20 cricket – a slog fest where skill plays a part but injuries and hugely luck play a bigger role.

That little analogy has never before seen the light of day but it’s my personal view on how the season forms.

In the Heineken League days of the sport the play-offs were played for promotion/relegation which added integrity to the competition and brought together the whole of the UK hockey community. That no longer happens as the big teams fractured the sport with the flawed (and later failed) ISL and continue with the EIHL. The EIHA run the EPIHL and below and there is no cross competition between the leagues.

The EPIHL format has changed in recent years to a home and away weekend for qualification for Coventry. At the end of the league season the teams match up 1 vs 8, 2 vs 7, 3 vs 6 and 4 vs 5. Home and away weekends over aggregate score then decide who goes to Coventry to play the semi-finals and then the final. This format gets the play-offs done within two weekends. Four games is all that the competition consists off and given the aggregate score nature of the qualification part only three wins are needed to lift the trophy.

Previously the play-offs were played different, and in my opinion in a format which added to their integrity and value. The top eight teams were grouped into two groups of four and a 3 week mini league was played, home and away against each team in the group and the top two teams from each group after the 3 weekend home and away mini league played the semi-finals and finals.

As you can see the second (and now discarded) outlined format adds to the value of the trophy. No longer can a trophy, seen by many as the pinnacle of the season, be lifted through just 3 wins. A 6 game mini-league still isn’t the Stanley Cup but it adds more competition to the Play-offs and means that skill, talent, depth and coaching are once again the dominating factor in deciding the winner.

Imagine for example that on the day of the second leg of the aggregate weekend series your team wakes up ravaged by a bug and consequently your team has to play the game seriously under-strength. That bug could then cost you a place in the semi-final line-up. Look at the Bison right now who are missing bodies through injury but also have players either missing because of or playing with a bug last night against the Phantoms. Had that been a play-off game that could have ended their season but had they been playing the mini-league format then it could have cost them two points but a further 5 chances to make up for those lost points.

Given that the fans (and administration) like the play-offs so much is it not time to add value to this coveted trophy? Make it back into the mini-league that it once was, make it a trophy that you have to prove yourself the best team to win over a period of time. The start of the league has got later season on season but in order to put the play-offs back to this league format you’d only need to add back the two weeks at the start of the season that have disappeared of late. You’d increase the wages budget of the teams by 2 weeks but you’d have 2 extra week’s play-off income gate to match that up with and the season would end with a valuable competition.

The Coventry finals weekend is a fantastic social occasion which brings together the fans of the 10 EPL clubs for the weekend. Only 4 of those 10 teams will make it to Coventry but it’s a chance for all 10 teams’ fans to meet up for a weekend and enjoy some hockey and each other’s company. The league has upped their professionalism in presentation of the play-offs by employing Daren Bavister from Basingstoke/Bracknell to replace the previous announcer and now perhaps it’s time to up the value of the competition.

Should the English Premier Ice Hockey League, the flagship league of the English Ice Hockey Association, really finish on a play-off system where the winner need only prove themselves in 3 games to be considered a winner?