MISSISSAUGA, ONT. - You have to wonder if the organizers were smoking crack when they decided on the format for the Memorial Cup.
You’ve got a 10-day tournament featuring four teams. Ten days to come up with a winner in a four-team event.
I guess if you’re a junior hockey nut, that’s great. And it’s nothing new. But it’s kind of made for a whacked event.
And here’s how. The pre-tournament favourite Saint John Sea Dogs secured a spot in this Sunday’s final last Monday, giving them five days to prepare for one game. So while they’ve been on cruise control all week, the three other teams at the tournament — Mississauga St. Michael’s, Owen Sound and Kootenay — have spent the time beating the crap out of each other in a drawn out process to determine the other finalist.
And so, come Sunday, you’re going to have one completely refreshed team and another that will need a M.A.S.H. helicopter to get to the Hershey Centre.
Sure, you could say that all the teams knew the deal coming into the Memorial Cup, and all’s fair in love and war. But there’s something else. The scheduling format left the door open to whispers of possible match-throwing, which is the last thing anyone needs.
By securing a spot in the final with their 2-0 start, it didn’t matter how Saint John fared in their final preliminary game on Tuesday against the underdog Kootenay Ice. But to the Ice, who started the tournament 0-2, the game meant everything.
Sure enough, Saint John coach Gerard Gallant did not play his best lineup against Kootenay, and the Ice prevailed 5-4, and were back in the hunt for a spot in Sunday’s final.
Immediately after the game, there were whispers that the Sea Dogs essentially threw the game — which Gallant denies emphatically.
“Yes, there wasn’t the pressure on us, but our kids still battled,” he said. “Some people said we didn’t play our best lineup, we sort of threw the game, but that wasn’t the case. We’ve got 23 kids who can all play in this league and they battled hard. When we were down a goal with a minute left we tried everything we could to score.”
But what was Gallant supposed to do? Risk his best players in a game that meant nothing? The coach was caught between a rock and a hard place.
Still, the Ice were able to crawl back into the thick of things partly because their opponents didn’t care very much.
And here’s the other side of the coin.
While the Sea Dogs are waltzing their way into the final, all because of their 2-0 start, the Owen Sound Attack have gone through the grinder, to say the least. The Ontario Hockey League champions started off the tournament on Saturday with a 5-0 win over Kootenay, but in the process, lost their leading scorer, Joey Hishon, to a concussion, when Kootenay defenceman Brayden McNabb nearly decapitated him with his elbow.
Stuff like that happens. But McNabb gets a one-game suspension and returns in time to help the Ice beat the Sea Dogs. The Attack, meanwhile, have been without Hishon since — and were without him again on Thursday when the Attack faced the Ice in the tournament’s first elimination game.
The Attack really got screwed in that deal. While McNabb was out making things happen and throwing his weight around for the Ice on Thursday, the guy he demolished, Hishon, has been sitting in a dark room all week, unable to play, unable to help his team.
Owen Sound coach Mark Reeds has been biting his tongue during all of this, but you know he must feel that he got screwed.
Saint John starts the tournament 2-0 and breezes into the final.
Owen Sound starts 1-1 and then has to play three games in three days to try to qualify for Sunday’s final — without two of their best players: Hishon, who got elbowed in the head on Saturday, and Garrett Wilson, who was knocked out of action in Wednesday’s 3-1 loss to Mississauga when he was elbowed into the boards, head-first, by the Majors’ Chris DeSousa.
DeSousa didn’t even get a penalty, though the Attack have submitted a request for the play to be reviewed.
Like I said, the tournament is whacked.