How odd is it when a team wins a playoff series but might not make it to the nationals, while their recently-defeated opponent will definitely be there?
That's what's happened in women's hockey at the moment, thanks to the unranked Queen's Golden Gaels knocking off the second-ranked Laurier Golden Hawks 2-1 in double overtime Friday. The victory not only gave Queen's a 2-0 series win (oddly enough, the first game also finished 2-1 for the Gaels in double overtime, and Brittany McHaffie scored the winner in both games), but it also dramatically reversed playoff history; Queen's had never won a women's hockey playoff series against Laurier, and the Gaels were 1-8 in playoff games against the Golden Hawks heading into Friday's game (0-8 before this year; I covered several of those losses during my time on campus at Queen's, including this one in 2008). Also, for the first time in eight years, Laurier will not claim the OUA title. Despite all that, Laurier still has a shot at claiming the national title, and a considerably better one than the Gaels do.
The Golden Hawks are hosting the championships, and as such, automatically receive one of the six berths. Two others go to Canada West teams, with one each for a QSSF team and an AUS team, leaving just one for an Ontario team. Queen's has a shot at that berth, as they'll now face the winner of the Brock-Guelph series (Guelph leads 1-0 after a 3-2 double-overtime win of their own in the first game Thursday; the second game is tonight at Guelph) in the OUA final . Either of those teams could pose a difficult hurdle for the Gaels; Guelph is ranked eighth nationally and has a strong lineup, and I've already written plenty about the fifth-ranked Badgers. Because of Laurier's host berth, only the OUA champion will advance to nationals, so it's quite possible that the Golden Hawks will be there and their Golden foes will not despite their triumph in the playoffs.
On the surface, that doesn't seem particularly fair. However, when you think about it in logistics terms, it's more reasonable than it sounds at first. The host berth may not be the ideal situation from a competitive standpoint, but it goes a long way towards making championships financially sustainable (especially in sports like women's hockey that aren't always the easiest spectator draw). Some people will come to watch the championship semi-finals and finals regardless of who's playing, but at the championships I've attended, the local team has always received the most interest regardless of how they do. Moreover, the championship sites have to be determined well in advance to give local organizing committees enough time to prepare. To the credit of CIS, it's generally strong teams that are given the chance to host championships, and teams that are perennially strong; that's why we don't see situations like this crop up very much. Frankly, it's quite surprising they don't happen more often given the year-to-year turnover in CIS sports and the general unpredictability of playoffs.
It's not like Laurier's a particularly undeserving team, either; they dominated OUA play during the regular season, finishing with a 24-2-1 record and a ludicrous 103 goals for against just 30 allowed. Two one-goal double overtime losses don't all of a sudden make them an awful team, even if those losses would normally end their season. I'm a big believer in the playoff system instead of just rewarding the regular-season champions, as it adds plenty of drama and a chance for underdogs to have their day, and normally, I'd agree that a OUA semifinal loss should be curtains for whatever team sustained it. However, the host berth has an important purpose, and Laurier was certainly a deserving choice to receive one based on their track record to date. The way the women's hockey playoffs have turned out this year isn't necessarily the fairest, but I don't think it will provide any impetus to change the system, and I don't think it should. From this standpoint, it looks like a bit of an unfortunate anomaly rather than a disturbing trend.
Correction: This post originally had Queen's at 1-8 against Laurier in the playoffs heading into this year. In fact, they were 1-8 heading into Friday's game, 0-8 heading into this year. Thanks to Queen's communications and sports information officer Mike Grobe for passing that on.