I was thinking about the format of the world junior championships, after TSN announcer Gord Miller noted Wednesday how Canada generally cruises through the preliminary rounds of all these tournaments – and don’t run into trouble until they get to the one-game, single-elimination format of the playoff round. It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always that way.
As recently as 1995, in Red Deer, the world junior tournament was conducted the same way that most International Ice Hockey Federation tournaments were – as a round-robin, with the gold medal going to the team with the best record at the end. Canada won that year with a perfect 7-0 record, with Russia getting the silver at 5-2 and Sweden the bronze at 4-2-1.
It meant that every game mattered, from the first to the last, and when Russia lost 4-3 to the United States on the opening day of the tournament, it set them back in a meaningful way. Six days later, Canada essentially clinched the gold by beating the Russians 8-5. It meant that even if the Canadians had lost the last game to the Swedes, they couldn’t be caught.
Compare that to the current WJ format, where 10 teams compete, six make the playoffs, four minnows are eliminated, and at that stage, it evolves into a series of best-of-ones.
My questions: Which is better? Which is fairer?
The value of the round-robin format is that it does reward consistent excellence. There have times in the past few years when Canada has been, on balance, the best team in the tournament, but had a collapse – remember the five goals surrendered in the third period against Russia during the 2011 event in Buffalo? That was grim and it overshadowed what had been a consistently good performance by the Canadians up until then.
The irony is that the IIHF once believed strongly in the round-robin format, and it was only because of consistent lobbying by Canada that got it changed.
The Canadian argument, back in the day, was that the European teams generally had an advantage in a round-robin competition because they tended to train together, as national teams, at every level – from senior men’s competition all the way down – and thus were better prepared to hit the ground running, when a tournament opened. Canada, generally, cobbled together a line-up at the 11th hour and thus needed a few games to hit its stride.
Eventually, the IIHF came to see it that way too (and were also seeing how tournaments conducted in a round-robin format could be anti-climactic).
It wasn’t just Red Deer in 1995 for WJ either. The 1988 Winter Olympics, in Calgary were decided before the final games were ever played – the Soviet Union having clinched the gold medal before playing a final game against Finland. Predictably, with nothing at stake, the Soviets managed to lose a game that they otherwise likely would have won in a walk. It affected the medal standings, and called into question the integrity of the competition.
Unquestionably, a playoff format creates more drama. That one-game, winner-take-all showdown makes for great television. It is different again from what we’re used to here, where playoffs tend to be best-of-sevens and thus are more forgiving. You can have a bad night in the run for the Stanley Cup and it doesn’t automatically put you on the sidelines. In the Stanley Cup playoffs, the team that ultimately wins it all is the most consistent over a span of seven-to-14 days in four consecutive rounds. It’s a marathon, but it also eliminates the excuses. If you lose four times to an opponent, you cannot blame it on a team catching lightning-in-a-bottle in one 60-minute game.
I go back and forth on this issue, because there’s a part of me, in the first week of the world junior tournament that wants these preliminary round games to matter more than they do.
It is hard to get tied up all in knots about the state of Canada’s goaltending or its defensive play when you know the margin of error is so great – and that even if they stumble at some point during the first four games, it really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
So I throw it out for debate. Does anybody miss the old ways? Or is it OK to suffer through these mostly inconsequential preliminaries, knowing that there’s a payoff down the road, once the playoff round begins? And in the meantime, can you accept the fact that in a best-of-one, the best team doesn’t always win in the end?