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Don’t call it a gimmick: SPHL striving to innovate with playoff challenge format

Some may call the SPHL's new Challenge Round playoff format a novelty or a gimmick, but the minor pro league is striving to innovate, just as they did when they introduced 3-on-3 overtime more than a decade ago.
via Macon Mayhem Instagram

via Macon Mayhem Instagram

Jim Combs remembers a time when the Southern Professional Hockey League was laughed at for playing 3-on-3 overtime. Critics called it foolish, a mockery, and said it was a gimmick the likes of which would never work. Turns out there was something to the idea, though, so much so that it has become near-ubiquitous throughout the sport. 

And now the SPHL is trying to change the game again.

On Monday, the 10-team minor league announced that this season will feature a new playoff format: first round match-ups won't be determined by the traditional seeding method, but instead by way of good old-fashioned call-outs.

“This summer, I met with Axel Bammer from the Austrian League,” Combs explained. “We were just having dinner and he kept talking about this team in the ‘pick spot,’ or ‘this team is playing for the pick spot.’ I finally said, ‘Wait a minute, what are you even talking about?’ And he told me, ‘We have 12 teams and we have eight teams that make the playoffs. The top four get to pick their opponent for the first round.’ I almost fell off my chair.”

Make no mistake, the system is exactly as it sounds. Bammer, the chief operating officer of Austria’s EBEL, laid it out to Combs: with eight teams making the playoffs, the top three are given the choice of opponent from the bottom four seeds, with the league’s best teams selecting in order of league placement. So, the first place team selects their first-round opponent, the second place team chooses from the three remaining clubs, the third place team has two options and the fourth place team battles it out with the last remaining club from the bottom four. After the first round, the playoffs revert to traditional seeding.

Though initially taken aback by the system, it didn’t take long for Combs to get on board with the idea. His sit-down with Bammer happened only a few days before the SPHL board of governors were set to convene, and when the league got together to discuss the 2017-18 campaign, the change to the playoff format was on the docket. “Once I brought it up and explained it out, the board was supportive,” Combs said. “They thought it was something they could definitely get behind.”

Now, conventional wisdom might suggest it’s a no-brainer for the first-place team to select the eighth-place team and that any change to the playoff format won’t really result in a post-season that looks all that different from the format we’ve come to know throughout the spot. That’s not necessarily how it works out, though.

“Some teams have done it to where they’ve picked the toughest opponent because they want to get them out while they’re fresh and clear an easier path to the championship,” Combs said. “Some want to pick the weakest link and have an easy first round. The others do it based on travel. ‘Hey, this team is three hours away, we can bus there and back and that other team is 14 hours away.’ ”

Take the past Austrian League season, for example. The first-place Vienna Capitals, the eventual EBEL Champions, selected fifth-place HC TWK Innsbruck as their first-round opponent, second-place Red Bull Salzburg selected the seventh-place Graz 99ers and third-place EC KAC was able to take the lowest-ranked post-season club, Orli Znojmo. That left fourth-place Liwest Linz to travel to Italy to play HC Bolzano, which resulted in the opening round’s lone upset.

The SPHL is planning to give organizations, players and fans a peek behind the curtain, too. The choices for the so-called Challenge Round won’t be made behind closed doors. Instead, each SPHL franchise will host a "pick party" where the selection process will be live-streamed. Once the selection process starts, each team will be given 10 minutes to decide to announce which team they’ll be challenging in the opening round, complete with an explanation as to why the team was chosen. If that sounds like it could create some hatred between teams and their fan bases, well, that’s the whole idea.

“We thought it would definitely create that rivalry,” Combs said. “Obviously, this is Year 1, but in Year 2, 3, 4, teams can say, ‘Remember when that team challenged us last year? We’re going to get them back.’ It’s going to create the rivalry, just like being challenged to anything.”

And Combs isn’t afraid of thinking big picture with the format. While he knows it’s an idea that is in its infancy, and while there’s a chance there may be some kinks that need to be worked out, Combs believes it could be something that’s adopted down the line by other leagues in North America. And, yes, he includes the NHL in that.

“How great would it be if, say, hypothetically, Washington is in first place and they have to pick between New Jersey, the Rangers, Boston and Toronto?” Combs said. “They have to say, ‘We think you’re the weakest link, that’s who we’re going to play.’ They’re going to have to pick the team and then the pressure is on (Washington) to actually fulfill it.”

Traditionalists may bristle at the idea of a Challenge Round finding its way into the world’s best league, but, then again, the same naysayers derided the SPHL’s overtime format when it first debuted, yet 3-on-3 has become part of the game and, at times, the most exciting part of any contest. Combs can understand the perception of the changes, though, but wants people to realize the SPHL is doing this with the game’s best interest in mind.

“We might be perceived as doing something silly when, in reality, we’re trying to do something that’s innovative and brings people to the game to make it more exciting,” Combs said. “We don’t want to disrespect the game or how things happen, we just thought this would be another level of excitement. It draws attention back to our sport, and I could see this in five or 10 years being maybe, possibly, in the NHL.”

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