It's time again for the Stanley Cup playoffs. The format is simple: 16 teams, best of 7 every round, and you have your winner. It's been this way since time immemorial, right? Hardly. The Cup has had an enormous number of wildly varying formats over the years. Here's a selective list.
In 1893, the first winner of the Cup was determined by a five-team double round robin of teams from the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada. The Montreal Hockey Club (not a predecessor of the current Canadiens) won with a 7-1 record. (Oddly enough, they refused the Cup as a result of some minor spat.)
After just one year, that format was dumped in favor of a single elimination tournament. Four teams who had tied for the A.H.A.C. title were invited, although only three showed up. The tournament was played in Montreal, so Ottawa, the only road team, was awarded a bye.
Starting in 1895, the Cup became a single-game challenge event, sort of like the Americas Cup or a boxing crown, with the winner defending the Cup against various challengers. Some of the Cup finals were played in the preseason, and sometimes several were played in the same year.
In 1899, the single-game format was changed to a two-game total goals series, and in 1900 best of 3 began, but in 1906, total goals resumed.
The challenge era ended in 1914, when the Cup became a best-of-3 duel between the winners of the top two leagues at the time, the National Hockey Association and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. In 1916, they went to best of 5.
The N.H.A. became the National Hockey League in 1920, and the Cup began to be played between the N.H.L. champ and the champs of various other leagues.
In 1926, the N.H.L. had become the dominant league, and it took over the Cup entirely. In 1927 it played a six-team tournament with total goals series for the first two rounds, and a best-of-5 final. This was changed in 1928, and quite an odd system was put in place. The N.H.L. had two divisions, and the top three from each division made the playoffs. The winners of the two divisions -- the two best teams -- played each other in the first round! Meanwhile, the second place and third place teams were facing the same placed teams in the other division. The winner of the first-place playoff went straight to the best-of-5 final, where it played the winner of a match between the second and third place winners.
They stuck with this system for a decade, but tinkered with it in 1939. Divisions had been dropped, and there were only seven teams in the league. The top six made the playoffs, which began with No. 1 playing No. 2 in a best-of-7. The winner went to the Cup final, where it played the winner of a 3,4,5,6 playoff.
In 1943, the New York Americans folded, and the N.H.L. was left with what are often inaccurately called "The Original Six." Four teams now made the playoffs, and bizarrely, the semifinals matched 1 with 3, and 2 with 4! Not a whole lot of incentive to finish third then.
In 1968, the N.H.L. doubled in size to 12 teams. The Original Six were placed in the same division, the "East" (although it included Chicago and Detroit). The expansion teams made up the "West" division, despite including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The top four from each division made the playoffs and, yes, 1 was still playing 3, and 2 was still playing 4 in the semis. The Stanley Cup final pitted the East and West playoff winners. Not surprisingly, Montreal beat expansion St. Louis 4 games to 0. 1969 and 1970 also brought 4-0 whitewashes by Original Six teams.
Only in 1971 did the league finally wise up and begin crisscrossing in the playoffs, with teams from the expansion division meeting teams from the Original Six in the first round. As a result, the Final of course included two Original Six teams, and an exciting 4-3 series resulted. And the next year, they finally gave up, and after 30 years went to traditional 1-4, 2-3 matchups.
From then on, the changes have been more incremental. In 1975, the playoffs expanded to 12 teams, necessitating byes. In 1980, they expanded to 16, and the divisions were thrown out too: the teams were ranked 1 to 16 and matched accordingly. After every round they were reseeded., so a No.16 might well have to beat 1, 2, 3 and 4 to win the Cup. This was dumped after two years, and divisions returned, with teams playing the first two rounds strictly within their divisions. In 1994, seeding became conference-based, and in 1999 the current format came into effect, with the three division winners within each conference getting the top three seeds automatically.
Whew, that's a lot of change. The current system is pretty fair, and we're certainly well rid of the weird 1-3, 2-4 matchups. But it's hard not to feel a little nostalgia for the wild old days of competing leagues, challenge matches and total goals series.