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Above the Glass

And I thought the NHL playoff format was whacked

Clearly, the inventors of the Western Hockey League playoff format were on a class of drugs that we haven’t even heard of in the United States. And that’s just one league. The team that takes the Ed Chenowyth Cup (given to the playoff champion of the WHL) still has to negotiate a labyrinth of standings, seedings and rules that make no sense en route to the Memorial Cup. But that’s ok, because it also means that the Portland Winterhawks finished on top of their division and conference for the regular season. So I can’t really complain, but I can try to understand it. Emphasis on try.

The game: Manitoba Moose vs. Abbotsford Heat (AHL).

The local angle: Manitoba forward Stefan Schneider is a former Portland Winterhawk who has one of the best success stories in any league. He went undrafted in the Bantam Draft and was passed over in the NHL draft. He was getting little ice time as a defenseman with the Vancouver Giants when he was traded to the Winterhawks, then the worst team in the league. Last season was his overage year, so it was his last chance for everything: playoffs, an NHL future, a winning season, etc. During the 2009- 2010 season, he served as an alternate captain, and concluded the season by winning the Bill Masterson Trophy for sportsmanship and ability for the second year in a row. He also won the defensive player of the year award and shared the academic achievment award with Seth Swenson. Then late last season he was signed by the Vancouver Canucks and was assigned to the Moose in September, 2010. In 42 games, he has four points, 29 shots on goal and nine penalty minutes. Abbotsford is the hometown of Portland Winterhawk and Buffalo Sabres prospect Riley Boychuk, who was picked 208th overall in last year’s draft after missing his draft-eligible year due to injury. It is also the hometown of former Winterhawk goalie Ian Curtis, who was the first goalie picked in the 2005 Bantam Draft, having been chosen only four spots after Tyler Myers.

The other local angles: Manitoba is currently second in the AHL’s North Division standings, a mere four points behind the Lake Erie Monsters, who sit in the top spot with 88 points. The Monsters have on their roster former Portland Winterhawk Luke Walker, who signed with the Colorado Avalanche last fall after being drafted by the team 139th overall in the 2010 Entry Draft. Luke was not drafted in the Bantam Draft, found his way onto the Winterhawks by showing his stuff at training camp and until last year had gone undrafted by the NHL. He is the son of former Winterhawk and New York Ranger Gord Walker. And his story doesn’t stop there. He was invited to training camp for the 2010 U.S. World Junior team, but suffered a gruesome face injury in an away game about a week before he was scheduled to leave. Thought to be a foregone conclusion, he rallied back from the injury and traveled to the training camp, where by his own account he barely survived. But as he had so many times before, he showed what he could do and made the team. The U.S. team went on to win the gold medal, breaking Canada’s stranglehold on the title. Oh, and Portland Winterhawk defenseman Troy Rutkowski was chosen 137th overall by the Avalanche in the same draft. And finally, current Winterhawk Tayler Jordan also got an invite to Vancouver’s training camp last fall, though he has not yet been signed or drafted by any teams. Last season, Tayler played on what local broadcaster Andy Kemper used to call the minimum height requirement line with Stefan and Riley. How they earned that name: Riley is 6’5”, Stefan is 6’4” and Tayler is 6’6”.

Now, about that WHL playoff format: It starts out logically, but loses the plot once you get out of the first round. It goes like this: The first place teams in the two divisions in each conference will receive the top two playoff seeds based on regular season points. The next six clubs in each conference, based on regular season points, will receive the 3rd to 8th playoff positions. The clubs will be paired 1-8, 2-7, 3-6 and 4-5 in a best of seven series.

Oh, I see. This is how they keep it simple. They just cut and pasted the last part of the previous playoff format into the next one instead of reseeding based on the outcome of a best of seven series: The four clubs winning the first round series in each conference will advance to the second round, where they will be ranked in order of regular season points. The clubs will be paired 1-4 and 2-3 in a best of seven series. The two clubs winning the second round series in each conference will advance to the third round, where they will be ranked in order of regular season points. The clubs will be paired 1-2 in a best of seven series. The Eastern and Western Conference champions will advance to the best of seven series WHL Championship Series, with the Club having the most regular season points receiving home ice advantage.

Hey I have a better idea: Since this is all just based on regular season points, why not skip all that seeding and best of seven series crap and just advance the team from each conference with the most regular season points right to the WHL Championship series? Oh wait a minute….that means the WHL hockey season would be reduced by about two months. Never mind. Carry on as is.

Nobody said the road to the Memorial Cup made sense: The current playoff format for the ultimate prize in junior hockey goes like this: It is awarded annually to the Canadian Hockey League champion. It is awarded following a four-team, round-robin tournament between a host team and the champions of the CHL’s three member leagues: the Western Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Sixty teams are eligible to compete for the Memorial Cup, representing nine provinces and five American states. The host team gets an automatic berth in the final. And guess where that quirk in the rule started?

The local angle, part three: Historically, the Memorial Cup was a three-team round-robin in which the top two teams advanced to a single game final. In 1983, the Memorial Cup added a fourth team to improve tournament attendance. The first tournament held under this format was held in Portland, Oregon, marking the first time an American city hosted the Memorial Cup. The host Winter Hawks won the Cup, becoming the first American team ever to do so. They were led to that victory by rookie Cam Neely, who recorded a hat trick in the final 8-3 game against Oshawa. Also on the roster: Gord Walker. 

Random trivia: The Winterhawks are the only team in the U.S. Division not located in Washington: the other teams are the Seattle Thunderbirds, the Everett Silvertips, the Spokane Chiefs and the Tri-City Americans. One of these things does not belong and they won the U.S. Division title this year. Coincidence or fate? Discuss.

Morals of the story: 1) I can forget about that second career in any job that involves determining playoff formats for any organization that ends in HL. 2) I picked the right time to move back home to Portland. 3) Now I see why the Portland Winterhawks are heavily favored to win the Conference title and potentially represent the WHL in the Cup this year. Never mind all those NHL draftees and talented lines like Ross-Johansen-Niederreiter and Rattie-Cunningham-Bartschi. The team has the most regular season points. Therefore, provided they eliminate the opponent in each round, they are in prime position for further victory.

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kcameron's avatar

Nice to see an article on the Winterhawks! Thanks Samantha.

Posted by kcameron from Portland OR on 03/27/11 at 06:28 PM ET


The team that takes the Ed Chenowyth Cup (given to the playoff champion of the WHL) still has to negotiate a labyrinth of standings, seedings and rules that make no sense en route to the Memorial Cup.

Am I missing something or is the WHL playoff format exactly the same as the NHL format?

Posted by Garth on 03/27/11 at 07:15 PM ET


The formats for both leagues are very similar, with several important differences. I’m still learning, and hence these recent entries.  But if I understand things correctly, the reseeding in the NHL is not based on regular season points, it’s based on a simpler system where the highest remaining seed from the quarterfinals plays the lowest remaining seed and the other two teams pair off. For the first three rounds in the NHL, the higher seeded team has home ice advantage regardless of its point record. In the Stanley Cup final, home ice advantage goes to the team with the better regular season record. See…I told ya’ it was crazy.  Either that, or I understand even less than I thought I did grin.

Posted by Samantha from Portland, Oregon on 03/28/11 at 01:37 AM ET



I’m still not catching the differences. Can you give a more specific example of how the WHL and NHL would line up differently?


Posted by Shane on 03/28/11 at 02:31 AM ET


In the NHL the seeding, and thus the bracket, are set at the beginning of of the post season.  Once your seed number is set, it’s set.  The winner of the 1-8 game faces the winner of the 4-5 game regardless of who wins.  The only thing that changes in that game is who get’s the home ice advantage.  Also if the winners of those two games are done after 4 or 5 games, they can start their series regardless of the outcome of the 2-7 3-6 games because they won’t meet until the end of that side of the bracket.

In the WHL it gets a little trickier.  Everyone has to wait to see they are going to play until the all first round series’ are final because the bracket gets reseeded based on regular season points of who’s left.

This is important because it is possible to have anywhere from 1-4 teams from one conference to have more points than any team from the other conference, but the winner of the “weaker” conference is automatically seeded 2nd in the first round, but could drop to 4th in the second round (and loose home ice) because all three teams from the other games have more points and are from the “stronger” conference.

For example this year the first four teams in the WHL first round are:

1. Portland (US Div. Winner) 103 Pts.
2. Kelowana (BC Div. Winner) 87 Pts.
3. Spokane (US) 102 Pts.
4. Tri-Cities (US) 92 Pts.

And assuming they all win their games in the first round the second round will be seeded:
1. Portland 103
2. Spokane 102
3. Tri-Cities 92
4. Kelowana 87

Which means that the division winners will face each other in the 2nd round…

Posted by The1Paladin from Portland OR on 03/28/11 at 02:40 AM ET


Ah, gotcha. Thanks for the example.

Posted by Shane on 03/28/11 at 03:26 AM ET


The winner of the 1-8 game faces the winner of the 4-5 game regardless of who wins.

That’s not correct.  The top remaining seed plays the bottom remaining seed.  The initial seeding (1-8) only matters in that the top seeded team will get home ice (ie. if the playoffs started today and Boston played Pittsburgh in the second round Boston would have home ice advantage because they won their division even though Pittsburgh has more points).

Posted by Garth on 03/29/11 at 01:14 AM ET


My bad.  Sorry about that.  I don’t follow the NHL much.  I’m much more of a WHL honk.

Posted by The1Paladin from Portland OR on 03/29/11 at 01:59 AM ET


If it makes you feel any better, I write two whole blogs and I still don’t quite get how either league ended up with such a whacked set of rules. Although the WHL wins my prize for being the wonkier of the two. Thanks to all for the examples and clarity.

Posted by Samantha from Portland, Oregon on 03/29/11 at 04:08 PM ET

Hippy Dave's avatar

btw Samantha, It was great for us all to have dinner with you prior to the last game of the regular Winterhawks season - very cool to meet you!

Thanks for this recap of how it all works.  I’m just trying to figure out when the best games to go to will be at our home ice.  I’m going to go ahead and assume we win the conference; so maybe a game or two there in that third round.  Any idea how the hosting schedule goes once we win that round?  I’d love to see some of the late-round stuff in our back yard if at all possible.

Keep up the good work!  I know it’s not easy.


Posted by Hippy Dave from Somewhere West of Detroit on 03/30/11 at 06:38 AM ET


Hi Dave - Pleasure meeting you as well.  I always enjoy meeting fellow fans and readers.  With playoffs, I believe if Portland makes it to the third round, we would get home ice advantage since it would be based on regular season points. There’s another quirk here that also impacts home ice advantage: whether the team’s arenas are available. If not, then the team with the available rink would host. I recall that happened last year in our series with Spokane and they couldn’t start the series at home as they should have (?). The Winterhawks have announced they hope to hold all of our home games during playoffs in the Rose Garden, dependent upon availability.  Personally, I’d say go to any home games you can. Nino is likely gone after this season, as it’s anticipated he’ll join the Islanders next season. It’s also highly likely that Ryan Johansen may end up staying with the Columbus Blue Jackets and local expert opinion is that Captain Brett Ponich will be with the St. Louis Blues next season. So, I’d say come on out and watch ‘em while you can. If you do, let me know if you want to reconnect for beers.

Cheers! Sam

Posted by Samantha from Portland, Oregon on 03/30/11 at 03:35 PM ET


Sorry about that.

No problem, I was actually confused about it a bit myself.  I did some research at work (which is when I do my best non-work-related internetting) to sort it out for myself.

It amazes me that there isn’t a sort of “standard” playoff format and, now that I think about it, I wonder if the three leagues under the CHL umbrella even have the matching formats.

Posted by Garth on 03/31/11 at 02:54 PM ET


It amazes me that there isn’t a sort of “standard” playoff format and, now that I think about it, I wonder if the three leagues under the CHL umbrella even have the matching formats.

I’m glad I’m not the only one scratching my head. That’s a good question about the other CHL leagues. I’m putting that on the radar for a future entry. Thanks for thinking of it.

Posted by Samantha from Portland, Oregon on 03/31/11 at 06:58 PM ET

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About Above the Glass

Welcome to Above the Glass, a definitive anti-expert’s guide to hockey. I started blogging in 2009 as part of an effort to learn all 87 rules in the NHL Rulebook in 107 days before the 2010 Olympics, 30 years after I discovered the sport. You can peruse the archival results here. Growing up in Arizona, I didn’t even know hockey existed until February 22, 1980, when the USA played Russia in the Olympics. And just like that, the game of the century changed my life. I still don’t quite understand the icing rule or which faceoff circle goes with what offense, but I do know that every aspect of hockey has something to teach us about life. That’s what you’ll find here, along with my unadulterated passion for the game.

I live in Portland, Oregon, home of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. I invite anyone who wants to know more about hockey in the Rose City to visit here, where I blog exclusively about the Winterhawks. I’ll post an occasional musing about the Hawks, the WHL and junior hockey here as well.

Follow me on Twitter: @AbovetheGlass

Email: samantha@kuklaskorner.com