Could An FA Cup Style Hockey Tournament Work In North America?

So it’s the dog days of a hockey summer with almost nothing coming out of the hockey world other than Gary Bettman dumping a bucket of ice water on his head (gawd something we have all been wishing he would have done eons ago! well it’s a good first step and hopefully he will come to his senses and let a legendary player who has won the cup hand over Lord Stanley at the end of the playoffs so I can stop booing my television set to the point my neighbors think I have finally gone completely and utterly bonkers!!).

With all this free time to just mull around and ‘think’ about hockey I have started to wonder given my background in soccer/football (hey it’s not my fault, I grew up overseas in a place where hockey is about the last sport people follow) if the Maple Leafs would be capable of starting a tournament much like The Football Association Challenge Cup in the U.K., known to many simply as the FA Cup here in Toronto every few years or perhaps at a varying host city. Not familiar with the tournament? well he is a breakdown to give you a little more insight as to where I am potentially coming from;

“The Football Association Challenge Cup, commonly known as the FA Cup, is an annual knockout cup competition in English football; it is the oldest association football competition in the world.[1] The FA Cup is organised by and named after the Football Association. Its current sponsored name is the FA Cup with Budweiser.[2] A concurrent women’s tournament is also held, known as the FA Women’s Cup.

The FA Cup was first held in 1871–72. Entry is open to all teams who compete in the Premier League, the Football League and in Steps 1 to 5 of the FA National League System, as well as selected teams in Step 6.[3] This means that clubs of all standards compete, from the largest clubs in England and Wales down to amateur village teams. The tournament has become known for the possibility for “minnows” from the lower divisions to become “giant-killers” by eliminating top clubs from the tournament and even theoretically winning the Cup, although lower division teams rarely progress beyond the early stages. The qualification rounds and a system of byes mean that the very smallest and very biggest teams almost never meet.” via Wikipedia.

Hockey really has started to establish a significant foothold in the United States and even smaller professional leagues such as the Central Hockey League (CHL), East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) and the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL) are starting to garner more attention and more structure to their teams and their games in the last couple of years. Gone are the days of wild west hockey and with it heightened competition and the attraction of better players. That being said if you also start looking at the number of NCAA teams along with Senior AAA and AA teams throughout both countries, one starts to wonder if an FA Cup type tournament might work here. Perhaps not every year mind you but you might be able to schedule it around the NHL lockouts which tend to occur every four years (I kid, I kid…well sort of).

Firstly, could the tournament work from a financial standpoint? Given the vast number of semi professional and professional teams out there, I believe it would from an entry fee standpoint alone. One could establish a sliding scale of fee’s depending on the level of hockey a team is coming from so that a semi-pro team is not footing the same bill as a professional team. Television revenue if garnered could also be used towards aggregating financial stability of the tournament along with ticket sales at the host city or cities. Given the audience numbers for the Spengler Cup alone in Canada, one could imagine that a local tournament might garner even more attention on television:

“The Spengler Cup, the oldest international event held annually in Davos, Switzerland, saw Canada repeat as gold medalists when they won this year’s event on Dec. 31 by beating the host team 7-4. Rogers Sportsnet carried all of Canada’s games from the Spengler Cup are received the following television ratings (all ratings are 2+):

Dec 26 Canada vs. Krefeld 215,000
Dec 28 Canada vs. Helsinki 124,000
Dec 29 Canada vs. Yaroslavl 142,000
Dec 30 Canada vs. Davos 133,000
Dec 31 Canada vs. Davos – gold medal game 207,000*** (This number includes Live and Repeats)”
via Hockey Canada

Given the more recent formation of the Champions Hockey League (CHL) in Europe this past summer, North American hockey appears to have fallen a little behind their European peers in terms of staying ahead of the curve as the more established and innovative hockey market in the world and it would be my hypothesis that an invitational tournament here in North America much like the Spengler Cup may help fill the void. Just the mission statement and core values of the CHL alone, if applied to North America, would lend a pretty strong supporting argument to the establishment of just such a tournament:

Mission
* Provide an international environment to club ice hockey for its teams and players to regularly compete on the highest level
* Assist in keeping best talents longer in European club ice hockey by offering a valuable alternative in sportive competition and thereby increasing the pool of capable players for the national teams.
* Raise interest in domestic leagues as teams are playing for CHL qualification.
* Deliver long-term financial benefits to participants and shareholders and thereby contribute to the growth and success of club ice hockey.
* Create additional value – sportive, financial and emotional – to clubs and leagues.
* Engage fans in following their team in a best-on-best international environment.

Core Values
* Competitive – The CHL is highly competitive with best-on-best ice hockey on an international level
* Accessible – The CHL is attractive to a broad demographic audience with emotion-evoking sport
* Respectful – The CHL is an inclusive competition based on respect vis à vis opponents, referees and opposing fans.”
via the Champions Hockey League.

Now imagine a team strictly made up of retired NHL veterans coming together for one last shot at glory at this yet unnamed tournament or perhaps an underdog SPHL team with a bunch of virtual unknowns beating the odds and making it to a point where they face an AHL or even NHL squad. The tournament could answer so many of those locker room statements you have heard over the years “I could have played with the best if only I had been given a shot”. Well then go out a form a team and prove it. The continued development of ‘our’ game as players and teams alike scramble to put together squads to compete in this tournament could very well have a positive impact on the game. Perhaps there would be a re-insurgence of the importance of game points and standings in the various leagues throughout both countries as the potential to receive a coveted invitation to this tournament could only but help to continue to grow the sport. While we are at it, perhaps the NHL gets involved and through their status as a socially responsibly entity sponsors a deserving team from another country to attend the tournament. Perhaps they invite HC Davos to the tournament every year as a way of saying thanks for having Canada attend the Spengler Cup for all those years. The opportunities to create goodwill while growing the game here in North America are almost endless.

Finally if the Maple Leafs were to take on the task of hosting this tournament as the largest (read: wealthiest) team in hockey or at minimum establishing the foundation, perhaps they could very well name it after one of the Leaf greats, like the Sittler Cup, the Gilmore Cup or even the Clarke Cup…something that would further immortalize for all time in the annals of history the most beloved hockey player and the most beloved club in hockey. As always, puck for thought.

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