Congratulations, Mazel Tov and Felicitations to the Regina Pats. Your student-athletes™ have captured the ‘Mastercard’ Memorial Cup, the trophy that pays equal amounts of homage to Canada’s war dead and a credit card company. Hold your trophy high and bask in the glory of winning it. After all, you bought and paid for it. So it’s yours.
This is the second straight season that the richest team, not the best team, in the Memorial Cup tournament has captured the Canadian Hockey League championship and if those who run junior hockey aren’t embarrassed by that, they should be. Last year it was the Windsor Spitfires, who like the Pats this season, lost in the first round of the playoffs and used the little more than six weeks between their ouster and the tournament to rest, heal and improve, while the other three teams in the tournament had to earn their way there by slugging it out through three more playoff rounds.
By the time the Hamilton Bulldogs, Swift Current Broncos and Acadie-Bathurst Titans arrived in Regina, the were all running on fumes. The Pats, meanwhile, paid $3.65 million – the CHL’s hosting fee for the 100th Memorial Cup – for the privilege of putting their feet up and waiting for the three league champions to win separate battles of attrition. So the next time these junior hockey operators try to tell you that they’re mom-and-pop operations that can barely afford to keep the lights on, let alone pay their players minimum wage, just remember that the Pats paid each of their other 59 CHL partners almost $62,000 each for the privilege of hosting the Memorial Cup tournament.
Pats ownership came out earlier this week and declared that it would lose about $2 million on this year’s Memorial Cup. It also declared that was why ticket prices were so high, which contributed to sparse crowds at some of the games. So if you follow that logic, the Pats paid all this money in the ultimate show of altruism to bring the 100th Memorial Cup to their fans, then were forced to set ticket prices so high that many of their own fans couldn’t afford to go to the games. You really can’t make this stuff up.
In two days, the CHL and the Quebec League will go in front of the members of the National Assembly in Quebec and plead with lawmakers there to legally enshrine major junior hockey players as student-athletes, which would buttress them against a class action lawsuit which could force them to pay their players minimum wage and retroactively pay players who played in the league for poverty wages. They will talk about how failure to do this could lead to the death of a host of small-market teams that provide entertainment for the locals and hockey opportunities for young men. They likely won’t mention the $3.65 million rights fees for the Memorial Cup, nor the millions of dollars they make when the World Junior Championship is in Canada or the millions of dollars they receive in development money from the NHL before they sell even a single ticket.
So when they fail to do that, feel free to harken back to two days prior when the Pats essentially paid $2 million for the Memorial Cup. None of this would happen if the CHL did not insist on awarding the tournament more than a year prior to when it is played. In their defense, they almost always try to give it to franchises that project to be powerhouse teams that season, but a lot can happen in the space of a year. Just ask the Spitfires and Pats, two of the richest franchises in junior hockey who did nothing to earn a berth in the tournament short of giving a very impressive pitch that included lots and lots of money. From a financial standpoint, it’s a home run for the CHL. From a competitive standpoint, it’s broken as all get-out. It’s unfair, it’s embarrassing and it gives the distinct impression that money is more vital to winning that developing hockey players and building teams. And with the kind of money the CHL is getting for these tournaments, the prospect of a small-market team ever hosting this event is getting more and more remote.
There was a time when the Ontario League had a pretty good way of doing this. The winner of each conference in the regular season would receive a bye in the first round of the playoffs and would play each other in a Super Series, the winner of which would be awarded the host status in the Memorial Cup. If that same team went on to win the league championship, the other finalist would round out the field as the fourth team. This still gave organizers about two months to prepare for the tournament and it would ensure that a truly deserving team would be the host, regardless of the size of the market.
The only problem with that is the CHL could not charge exorbitant rights fees to host. So now it goes to the highest bidder, which next year happens to be the Halifax Mooseheads. Don’t be surprised next year if the Mooseheads are swept in the first round of the playoffs and are still skating around with the Memorial Cup over their heads. Because as the Spitfires and Pats have proved, if you’re rich enough to buy your way into the Memorial Cup, anything can happen.
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