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Pick your poison: Top teams in SPHL get their choice of playoff opponent

The SPHL’s first-round ‘challenge’ format is a unique approach – but be careful what you wish for.
Dennis Sievers

Dennis Sievers

It’s tempting to call the Southern Professional League’s first-round playoff format a gimmick. The Challenge Round, in which the top four seeds draft or “challenge” opponents from the bottom four seeds to a best-of-three series, is a gimmick in that’s a lot of fun. But Year 1 of the idea also showed it’s deceptively complicated for every team awarded the power to pick.

Last year, after the regular season ended, the SPHL broadcast a live Challenge Round selection show, complete with teams sealing their opponent picks in envelopes and then-commissioner Jim Combs enduring a playful chorus of boos from the fans before each reveal. Top-seeded Peoria played it safe picking No. 8 seed Roanoke, but No. 2 seed Macon chose the team against which it had the best season record: No. 6 Evansville. The big shocker: with No. 7 seed Mississippi still on the board, No. 3 Pensacola chose No. 5 Knoxville, simply liking the matchup more. That meant No. 4 Huntsville got Mississippi by default. Every top seed won its series – except Pensacola, whose bold strategic play backfired.

In a small league like the SPHL, however, picking a playoff foe isn’t as simple as observing the standings or even reviewing one’s seasonal record against each opponent. The amount of bus travel matters, as does rink availability. SPHL teams sometimes get bumped from their home venues for concerts and other events, so a high seed might pick its opponent based on who has the best arena availability on desired nights of the week. As new commissioner Doug Price explains, a team might want to play another team that can yield multiple weekend arena bookings, which will bring better gate revenues than weeknight playoff games. “Instead of picking the eight seed, where you split weekends, you might pick the seven seed where you get the potential of two weekend dates,” Price said.

The pure hockey motivations still trump any financial thinking, but the idea of juggling both highlights how complex the Challenge Round can be. For the 2018-19 playoffs, we won’t see a live selection broadcast, but the league plans to record a podcast in which the coaches of each team will come on as guests immediately after issuing their challenges. “They can give a little bit of background to our fans as to why they made that selection and the different options they considered before making their final decision,” Price said.

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