Ryerson could benefit from new CIS playoff format

Major changes are coming to the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) hockey championships.

The current model of six teams making it to the playoffs will be expanded to eight and instead of first-round pool play, the tournament will move to a single elimination format, as is the case in basketball and volleyball.

“The main reason that we changed it is (because) we wanted real semifinals,” said Michel Belanger, CIS director of communications.

“And the only way to have real semifinals in four days was to go to that single elimination format.”

The current round-robin format, where teams could all have 1-1 records at the end of pool play, led to “silly scenarios,” according to Belanger, such as goalies being pulled despite their teams leading the game, in order to enhance goal differential.

“It was especially problematic for TV,” said Belanger. “You never want to be on air and trying to explain to viewers, ‘Today we have St. Mary’s playing Ryerson. And St. Mary’s needs not only to win, but to win by three to advance to the final.’”

Under the old model, each of the four regional champions – OUA East, OUA West, Canada West and Atlantic University Sport (AUS) – earned a berth to the national championship, in addition to a host team. A rotating berth – which went to OUA this season, made up the final spot in the six-team field.

In the new model, the rotating berth is eliminated in favour of an additional team from each conference.

That will give Canada West and the AUS two spots each, while the OUA will send three teams (OUA East, OUA West, and bronze medal winners) alongside the host school.

Ryerson associate director  of athletics, Stephanie White, likes the changes.

“I’m all for looking at new opportunities to have a championship weekend on Sportsnet. I think we want to find the right championships that can create good semifinals, and good championships, and also lead to a good broadcast week.”

For the OUA, the bronze medal game will be played each year to determine who gets the final spot, as was the case this season with the rotating berth.

Belanger said the CIS looked at 11 different formats and actually preferred to go with the old format, but it would have taken six days.

“We didn’t have enough time in four days to keep pool play and have real semifinals,” he said.

He adds that the board didn’t want to go over four days for “academic reasons” and that it affects the host because “the rest of their operation just doesn’t shut down.”

Belanger said that they did not make changes previously because the coaches really liked pool play.

“In talking to a lot of men’s hockey coaches in particular, they felt that with just the one-off there was a much greater chance of an upset or of bad luck in hockey than in basketball or volleyball,” he said.

Brian Birkhoff, an assistant captain on the Rams men’s hockey team, says he doesn’t think the extra berth from the OUA will have any impact on the way the team plays.

“I don’t think it really matters how many teams go,” said the third-year defenceman. “All the teams want to win the OUA (championship). They don’t want to finish second and go to the Nationals, or third for that matter. It all has to do with how we perform – it doesn’t really matter how many spots there are.”

In men’s and women’s basketball, the CIS is also extending the tournament from three to four days to help Sportsnet enhance its TV coverage of the event.

Belanger says that the basketball semifinals would traditionally air at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday night. But with Sportsnet wanting to avoid its CIS coverage competing with Hockey Night in Canada, an extra day was necessary for the consolation games.

Instead of a Friday to Sunday tournament, it will run from Thursday to Sunday. The consolation game will take place on Friday, which will be an off-day for the winners in the main bracket. The CIS will re-evaluate the hockey and basketball models after two years.

“Because we already had championships that were already using four days – like soccer and hockey were – it wasn’t a big stretch to add one day to the basketball championships,” said Belanger.

Jean-Victor Mukama of the Rams’ men’s basketball team says the extra day of rest will be important for the players to properly prepare for the rest of the weekend. With the Rams hosting the CIS Championships next year, this new model will directly affect the team.

“Rest is a very critical part of the game if a player doesn’t sleep properly or plays three games in three days and gets no rest, they’re most likely not going to perform well,” said the first-year guard.

However, White said that regardless of the changes, this doesn’t change anything for Ryerson teams. “When you’re in a tournament format, you need to win your games, it doesn’t matter what the format is,” she said. “I don’t get into worrying about if it gives us an extra chance: It’s about preparing your team to be successful in that format and it just comes down to who has the will to be successful.”

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on April 2, 2014.

(Harlan Nemers / Ryersonian Staff)

(Harlan Nemers / Ryersonian Staff)

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