There have been crazy playoff formats in hockey for as long as playoffs have been played. But nothing may have been as bizarre as what the Western Hockey League tried for three seasons in the late 1970s.
It was during those seasons (1977-78, 1978-79, 1979-80) that the WHL fell in love with the round-robin format as a way to try and balance out the league. Not just within the divisions, but a round-robin among division winners. In three different time zones. In a bus league. It may have made things worse.
With 12 teams in three divisions, coming up with a playoff format that worked would be a challenge anyway. The league (then called the Western Canada Hockey League) had tried a preliminary round for Central & Eastern division teams in 1976-77, the first season they had gone to three divisions after the original Edmonton Oil Kings had moved to Portland and became the Winter Hawks. But that led to the Calgary Centennials, the last-place team in the Central, sweeping the division champion Medicine Hat Tigers 4-0 and and the Central’s third-place team, the Lethbridge Broncos, ending the season of the East’s second place team, the Saskatoon Blades, 4-2.
It also had the Eastern champion Brandon Wheat Kings having to win a best-of-9 to defeat the Central’s second-place team, the Winnipeg Monarchs (5-2) while Lethbridge defeated Calgary 3-2 in a 5-game series. It made little sense, but that’s how it was. In the West, all four teams were in the playoffs, with the 2-time defending league champion New Westminster Bruins and Portland moved on after wins best-of-7 series wins over the Victoria Cougars and Kamloops Chiefs, respectively. New Westminster ended up winning their third-straight WCHL title, defeating Brandon in the finals.
Portland’s success led to more franchise moves into the United States in 1977, with the Kamloops Chiefs moving to Seattle and becoming the Breakers, and the Calgary Centennials shifting to Billings, Montana and rebranding as the Bighorns. Calgary immediately got another team, though, as the Winnipeg Monarchs moved to the Alberta city and became the Wranglers.
After this, the WCHL’s Eastern Division included Brandon, Saskatoon, Regina Pats and Flin Flon Bombers; the Central has Calgary, Medicine Hat, Lethbridge and Billings; and the West had New Westminster, Victoria, Portland and Seattle. Once the divisions were settled, the 72-game league stayed in place, it was decided that a new playoff format was needed.
What was developed was a hybrid of round-robin and best-of-7 series. The first round would involve the top three teams in each division, with an intra-divisional round-robin taking place. It was practically a mini-season, as each team would play 8 games (4 home, 4 away) against the other two division opponents. That meant playing an extra 4 games against each division rival. One team would be eliminated after each round-robin, and the two remaining teams in each division would play a best-of-7 division final.
That meant two teams would be playing an extra 8 games, and as many as 11, against a single division rival just to get out of their division and make the league semifinals. Then the playoff format got stranger.
The three division winners would then play another round-robin in the league semifinal. Each team would play each other twice, once at home and once away, for an extra four games. The two teams with the best record would then advance to the best-of-7 league final.
If it looked good on paper, the round-robin was borderline insane in practice, as the 1978 WCHL playoffs showed. In the divisional round-robin, all three division winners were the teams eliminated. Brandon was done in the Eastern despite having an identical 4-4 record as Flin Flon and Regina. Lethbridge was eliminated in the Central despite having the same 3-5 record as Medicine Hat (Billings went 6-2). Portland crashed out of the West with a 1-7 record, with New Westminster (7-1) and Victoria (4-4) moving on.
Then came the division finals, which saw Billings sweep past Medicine Hat, with Flin Flon and New Westminster needing just 5 games to defeat Regina and Victoria. Easy enough.
But this is where the format became a bit insane.
It’s 940 miles from New Westminster to Billings, and 1,307 miles from New Westminster to Flin Flon. The distance from Billings to Flin Flon is 860 miles. All three cities are in different time zones. The WCHL was, and as the WHL still is, a bus league. This meant that the WCHL Semifinal, being a round-robin, would see all three teams traveling a huge amount of miles to play just two games at the Bruins’ Queens Park Arena, two games at the METRA in Billings (now Rimrock Auto Arena) and two games at Flin Flon’s Whitney Forum.
All of that travel, and it only served to eliminate Flin Flon (0-4) from the playoffs, while New Westminster (3-1) and Billings (3-1) advanced to the final. At least for that final, the extensive travel would be expected, as it had been since the WCHL expanded into British Columbia in 1970.
The 1978 WCHL Final would make history on 2 fronts. Billings became the first US-based team to make the playoff final of a Canadian major junior hockey league, while New Westminster won their fourth-straight WCHL title (immediately followed by their second-straight Memorial Cup). But the major problems that the round-robin created were exposed. So, the renamed WHL did it again.
The format stayed the same for the 1978-79 season, with the only league change being a new Edmonton Oil Kings, having moved to the Alberta capital from Flin Flon but staying in the Eastern Division. With Brandon and Portland being massively dominant teams during the season (the Wheat Kings went 58-5-9, the Winter Hawks 49-10-15), the divisional round robin could have been a disaster for both. But they dominated those much like the season, while Billings failed to advance despite winning the Central.
Brandon and Portland both won their division finals, but while the Wheaties swept past Saskatoon, the Hawks had to survive a 7-game series with Victoria to move on (yes, New Westminster’s reign as champions ended in the divisional round robin). Lethbridge had to go 7 games to defeat Calgary to make get out of the Central.
Once again, the final round robin (WHL Semifinals) featured a large amount of travel. The distance from Portland to Lethbridge is 724 miles, while Portland to Brandon is 1,334 miles. Lethbridge to Brandon is 612 miles, far and away the shortest distance in the league semis over the two years of the format. All three cities, as in 1978, were in different time zones. So, of course it was the Broncos being knocked out with an 0-4 record, while Brandon (3-1) and Portland (3-1) moved into the WHL final, won by the Wheat Kings in six games.
Changes were coming in 1979-80, as the WHL combined the Eastern and Central divisions into a single 8-team Eastern Division after the “new” Edmonton Oil Kings moved to Great Falls, Montana and became the Americans (and lasted only 28 games). That new division would reverse the format used the last two seasons, with the top 6 teams playing in best-of-7 series to start the playoffs, with the three winners moving into a round robin (4 games, 2 home & 2 away) to eliminate one team before the division final. The format stayed the same in the West, with the top three teams playing a round robin (8 games, 4 home & 4 away) and the top two teams from that advancing to the division final. With only 2 division playoff winners, there was no need for a round robin WHL semifinal, so that was scrapped and a regular best-of-7 final took place (Regina won the 1980 WHL title, defeating Victoria 4-1).
That was it for round-robins for a number of years, thankfully, and it didn’t come back until the 1985-86 season. That’s when the WHL somehow decided it would be a good idea to have the top 6 teams in the Eastern Division be in a single round robin, playing 10 games to eliminate two teams. The top four would them play a best-of-5 division semifinal, then the two winners would play a best-of-7 division final (the West had its top 4 teams playing best-of-9 series at the time…yes, best-of-9). The league final was a “normal” best-of-7.
While that was it for the Eastern Division, the round-robin would emerge one more time to cause havoc. For the 1994-95 playoffs, the format was used in the West Division, with two groups of three teams playing each other in a 4-game set. One team was eliminated from each group, with the other four playing a best-of-7 division semifinal. Kamloops (3-1) & Portland (3-1) eliminated Seattle (0-4) from one group, while Spokane (3-1) and Tri-City (2-2) ended the season for Tacoma (1-3). Just like in 1986, the round-robin was done after one year. This time, it would never come back.
It was also the end of the Rockets’ run in Tacoma, as the team moved to Kelowna for 1995-96. Just like Flin Flon 17 years earlier, the last loss at home also meant the end of the city’s WHL history.
After 1995, that was all for the round robin format in the WHL. While the league kept experimenting with playoff formats (including byes for the 1st round, or a top 1st round winner), never has the round robin come back. Even with the huge growth of the league, expanding up to 22 teams, an attempt at a round-robin return never was proposed.
Currently, the WHL’s playoff format has 16 of the 22 teams advancing, using a system exactly like the National Hockey League system (top 3 teams from each division plus two conference wild card teams). It’s not the best, but it’s what the league has stayed with for a number of years. It’s brought stability to the WHL playoffs, something not known for a long time in the league.
And it will never be as bad as the round-robins from 1978-80. Not even close.
(Photo of Queen’s Park Arena in New Westminster, BC, home of the New Westminster Bruins from 1971-81 [became Kamloops Blazers] and from 1983-88 [now Tri-City Americans]. Photo by the author, taken in 2017.)