Is it Time to Ditch the Challenge Cup?
Within the next 24 hours, we’ll know which teams have progressed to the semifinal stage of this season’s Elite League Challenge Cup.
Since its inception in 1997, the Challenge Cup has been held by six different teams, with Cardiff lifting the trophy for a second time last season, and for the most part it’s been fun.
But times change. It’s existence is beginning to hold the league back, causing fixture congestion and additional strain on participants. Put simply, it’s time to move on.
Many yearn for the playoffs to be more substantial, the league to be as competitive as possible – even if they lament it when it means their team loses to a club they once whooped on a regular basis – but Elite League clubs surrender match nights to a competition only introduced because a proposed pan-European competition involving the Superleague clubs of the time failed to materialise.
We no longer need to fill that hole in the schedule.
Removing the eight* Challenge Cup group games opens up the equivalent of four weekends during the current regular season, opening up far more beneficial opportunities for the league.
* – except in the situation where teams play league and Cup crossover, double point games which are, frankly, stupid.
The most direct change simply removes the Challenge Cup from the schedule, and shifts everything else along accordingly.
What would this mean? In very simple terms, the regular season could finish up to four weeks earlier – to put things in to perspective, that would make the weekend of February 20th and 21st the final weekend of league action this year.
That may seem early, but if we assume that the Playoff Finals Weekend still exists, that’s five weeks in which to fit a more substantial, and many would say more meaningful, run up to the Grand Final. A ‘proper’ set of playoffs.
Ditch the Finals Weekend as well, and there’s a six week window in which to fit a series based playoff format.
Suddenly the post season is far more meaningful, perhaps even the priority. All because the EIHL version of the participation ribbon is gone, forcing clubs to focus their efforts if they want to win some silverware.
Neither of these scenarios elongates the season either, which would add additional costs to the clubs, but both allow for the sort of proper end of season showdown many are now clamouring for.
Even if, for whatever bizarre reason, there is no appetite to change the current playoff format, clearing some space in the schedule means we don’t end up with situations such as the one Cardiff face in late February, where the title contenders will play five games in seven days, including back to back games with Sheffield and trips to Belfast and Fife.
Over the same seven days, Braehead – (arguably) Cardiff’s main challenger right now – will play two home games and travel to Fife.
It’s hard to feel like that is a particularly balanced schedule, which may be further compounded if both the Devils and Clan qualify for the Challenge Cup semifinals.
Spread the games a little more and you create time for players to rest, recuperate. And rested players tend to play better, meaning teams perform better giving fans the best possible level of hockey on the ice and meaning the club that plays the best over the course of a season will win out – not the one who catches a break in the schedule at the right time.
At this point I’ll let those of you who wish to rant about the Conference system mutter to yourselves.
Perhaps we could be even more radical and suggest that international breaks are honoured, allowing Team GB to compete in additional tournaments or simply get together more often. It might mean a weekend without a league game, but in a professional league some sort of ability to manage ones finances should surely be expected?
But the post season should remain the golden egg here. A chance to do away with the wonky format that means 240 minutes effort can trump 52 games worth.
If the league wishes to move on, advance, then it must adapt – and given the underwhelming attendances at the Challenge Cup quarter final games, it makes retiring the competition all the easier.
If it simply serves to wear teams out in front of half full buildings, reducing the quality of the hockey we see as the season progresses, then is it really worth clinging on to?
Especially when ditching it could carry such benefits.