Although I was a hockey fan first, for a long period of time I was actually a bigger fan of baseball (more specifically, of the Montreal Expos) than I was of hockey. Being a fan of baseball in the late 1970s and ’80s was a very different experience from being a hockey fan (then or now). One difference that always struck me was how the playoff structure in the two sports affected the definition of a “good season.” In Major League Baseball at that time, there were two leagues (National and American) and two divisions (East and West) in each league. Each division consisted of six (American) or 7 (National) teams. ONLY the top team in each division made it to postseason play. So 4 out of 26 teams (15%) made the playoffs.
Contrast that with the NHL. The 1979-80 NHL season saw the addition of 4 WHA franchises to the league, for a total of 21 teams. That season also saw the playoffs expand, moving to 16 teams for the first time. Thus, 76% of the teams in the NHL in the 1979-80 season made the playoffs. Even now, 16 of 30 teams (53%) qualify for post-season play. By contrast, today’s MLB sees only 8 of 30 teams (27%) qualifying for the playoffs.
What do these differences mean in terms of how you view your team? Well, in hockey, the criteria for “success” is generally viewed as, at the very least, making the playoffs. If your team has championship ambitions, of course, merely making the playoffs is not enough. Conference top-4 status, with home ice advantage in at least the first round, might be needed. But even an 8th place team can ride a couple of upsets deep into the playoffs, as the Canadians did a couple of seasons ago. And, of course, commentators often talk about the playoffs as being “a whole new season,” where “anything can happen.” So, take the Canadiens of last season. They finished in 6th place, but took the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins to overtime of the 7th game of their first-round series before bowing out. Was that a “successful season?” Imagine for a moment that only the top 4 teams in each conference made the playoffs. The Habs would not have qualified. Same team, same level of play, same record, but no playoff berth. Successful season?
On the other hand, you have a sport like baseball. When I first started seriously watching baseball in the mid-1970s, the Expos were a very young franchise that had not had much success. But after a 1978 season that saw early promise dashed, the team excelled in 1979 from start to finish, their 95 wins placing them just 2 games behind division (and eventual World Series) champion Pittsburgh. Only 2 teams in all MLB won more games than the Expos that year (Pittsburgh and Milwaukee). But the Expos did not make the playoffs. Successful season? Of course it was. No baseball fan at that time looked at a playoff berth as the only measure of success. If they had, there would be only 4 successes and 22 failures.
The beauty of the MLB system, to me, is that you are forced to look beyond mere playoff qualification to define success. And I think that’s the way it should be. The problem with the NHL is that we have become too focused on making the playoffs. It’s as though we don’t trust the fans to come out to the rink or watch the game on television if we don’t hold out the hope of a playoff berth (where “anything can happen”) to motivate them. And, of course, the teams themselves have become heavily dependent on the playoffs, not just for the extra revenue the playoff games themselves bring, but also to drum up interest in a mediocre team during the regular season, when the “playoff race” starts after the all-star break (if not after Christmas!) It’s an interesting exercise to wonder what would happen to teams like Columbus or Carolina if only the top 4 teams in each conference made the playoffs. Would fan support erode if fans knew the team would have a long road ahead of them to reach elite status before they could even think about making the post-season? Are they fans of the team, or fans of a (potential) “playoff team?”
I’ve been using MLB as a comparison. What if I used English soccer? In the English Premier League, there are no playoffs. The team at the top of the standings (or “table”, as they call it over there) is the league champion. That’s it, that’s all. Now, I know there are other elements to English soccer – there’s the guarantee of Champions League play for the top 4 clubs and the danger of relegation (what a great concept!) to keep up interest for the bottom-feeders. But still, there is only one league champion. They don’t feel the need to create a playoff system to give 4 or 8 teams a shot at a championship. If you finish 5th in the EPL, that’s an accomplishment and you don’t need a playoff berth to validate it. You were one of the best teams over the course of the season. You can hold your head high. That’s all you need.
Ultimately, I think that having too many teams make the playoffs is damaging for the league because it creates too many casual fans and it makes the league cater to them because the league comes to need them. I know that some people laugh at the fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs because they support the team no matter the quality of the on-ice product. I know some say that fans of unsuccessful teams should just stay away because management has no incentive to improve a bad team if it sells out every game and the TV ratings are good. But that is not what being a fan is about. (See my earlier post on cheering against your team for more of my thoughts on this.) If it takes the possibility of a playoff berth to motivate you to support the team, I have news for you. You are not a fan. And I don’t think the NHL should cater to your wishes over mine.
What do you think? Comments are welcome. I approve all comments that are not spam.