Column: Memorial Cup host struggles call for renewed look at format

It would be hard to argue that there’s a more beautiful place in Canada than early May in Kelowna.

With that backdrop in mind, it’s not difficult to imagine why the 2020 Memorial Cup will be played at Prospera Place in the beautiful Okanagan river valley.

But of course, hockey being the business it is, especially in this country, it is much more complicated than that.

Three WHL teams put in a bid for the 2020 event. The Lethbridge Hurricanes and Kamloops Blazers were among the groups that failed to appease the WHL Board of Governors in 2018 and also in the eyes of the Site Selection Committee.

Bruce Hamilton, the Rockets owner and GM for reasons that will never be made entirely clear, had the goods.

His team, however, is leaving something to be desired as the host.

It is fairly typical of teams who host, the go “all-in”. Mortage future assets to have success on junior hockey’s biggest stage, while eyes around the country are on you, is more or less viewed as a worthwhile gamble.

While teams around the Rockets made big deals for stars, they stayed relatively quiet. The Victoria Royals landed the biggest fish, acquiring Brayden Tracey from the Moose Jaw Warriors. Defenceman Dawson Barteaux went to the East Division-leading Winnipeg ICE, Max Paddock went to Prince Albert and Ty Kolle went to Everett. Kelowna did get Dillon Hamaliuk, Matthew Wedman and Conner McDonald, but not the biggest chips they could acquire. It seemed like a measured approach, rather than a firesale for the best assets.

The Red Deer Rebels did the opposite when they hosted in 2015, same with the Windsor Spitfires when they won as host in 2017, before both finalists in 2018 (Regina Pats) and 2019 (Halifax) were also hosts. They laid it all on the line, emptying the majority of the prospect cupboard for a one in four chance to hoist the hallowed trophy.

Which leads back to the Rockets. Kelowna is not exactly having a banner season.

They’ve lost to Red Deer twice, were 3-11-1 when they fired coach and former NHLer Adam Foote, whose son Nolan is the Rockets captain and star player (although he has only played twice in the new year and is currently rehabbing an injury with the New Jersey Devils).

Injuries have played a large part in the Rockets struggles to be sure, but it started even before that.

On paper, most WHL pundits would have agreed that for the league to win as host of the Memorial Cup, the Blazers or Hurricanes were likely to ice better teams. The Rockets were considered okay but would need a substantial boost to their roster to be a cup contender.

Then, before the 2019 NHL Draft, star blueliner Lassi Thompson jettisoned the Rockets in favour of playing in his homeland, Finland. He was a first-round, 19th overall pick by the Ottawa Senators in the 2019 NHL Draft and still opted to stay in Finland.

As of Thursday, the Rockets aren’t in danger of missing the WHL playoffs, which would be an absolute disaster for the host of Canada’s premier junior hockey showcase. But with a subpar record of 24-26-2-2 and currently occupying the first wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference, they are exactly red hot. They trail Vancouver for third in the B.C. Division by 11 points and rival Kamloops for first by 22 points. It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the choice to award them host, based solely on merit.

The lowest point regular-season point total by a Memorial Cup host was Hamilton in 1990 when they were removed as host. One year later, Beauport, who registered 56 points, was removed as host. The Rockets are projected to finish at 65, third lowest in CHL history. In 1988, Chicoutimi had 77 points and were removed as host.

Which begs the question at this point, two months out, could it even be done? These days, with sponsors and events surrounding the tournament, I imagine it would be virtually impossible to move the event.

Could you replace them, with the second-best team in Canada based on the CHL rankings? Or Give the WHL a second team in the tournament? In all the cases where a team was removed, the host league got a second team in the tournament.

Still, that would surely sour local groups who have supported the event and the Rockets for years. But would it be worse than watching your home team get embarrassed in front of a national audience?

The NCAA hosts their final four tournament at a neutral site venue, with the four best teams in the country qualifying and earning a spot in the event. It’s questionable, but not unfathomable that the Canadian Hockey League could do the same. Revenue for the host would be the obvious question.

As it stands now, Kelowna will play in May against the three other best teams in the country and simply need to win a handful of games to make everyone forget the unmitigated disaster this season has been so far. Or, they create a public relations nightmare if they don’t win a game.

WHL

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