The NHL’s 24-Team Playoff and the Importance of Ostracizing Losers

National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman announced this week that the league had decided upon an adjusted playoff format in light of the regular season being cut short by COVID-19. Instead of the usual format—a 16-team, 4-round tournament with Best-of-7 series—this year’s playoff will expand to 24 teams, so as not to exclude teams just outside the playoff bubble when the season was interrupted. This means that of the 31 teams in the NHL, only seven teams will fail to make the playoffs. And boy, do those seven teams really, really suck.

We hope that this move by the NHL is the first step in a new direction that professional sports league should have taken long ago. Perhaps, at long last, sports will stop focusing so much on glorifying the winners and begin devoting themselves a little more to ostracizing and embarrassing the losers.

I already know what you’re thinking: sports have always been about celebrating the victors, ever since the Roman chariot races, or the ancient Greek Olympics, or that game that Turkic tribes play that’s like polo but the ball is a goat carcass or something. Many people believe that this is the inherent purpose of sports—to celebrate excellence and achievement. 

However, that isn’t quite the truth. Sports leagues are increasingly moving the emphasis away from rewarding greatness and toward forcing enormous shame upon the last-place finishers. Take, for example, my fantasy football league (yes, I am adopting a slightly liberal definition of “sports” here). There’s a modest prize for winning, of course. Maybe $100 or so. But the real goal is not to lose. If you lose, you have to dedicate yourself to a punishment that will take up huge swaths of your time and energy, and a chunk of your dignity that you will never get back. And that’s where the incentive lies. You’re not going to spend a couple hours tinkering with your line-up every week so you can maybe win $100 at the end of the year; you’re going to spend a couple hours tinkering with your line-up every week so you aren’t forced to watch every existing episode of The Good Doctor and write a summary of each episode.

Hopefully, the NHL is headed in the same direction. Let’s celebrate the team that wins the Stanley Cup, but let’s also talk loudly and at great length about how shitty your team has to be to miss a 24-team playoff in a 31-team league. Better yet, let’s have them do a seven-team loser’s bracket, so we can assert with absolute certainty that the Red Wings are the worst team in the league. Hell, why not tack on some individual awards? Everyone who cares about hockey should know the name of the person with the lowest plus/minus in the league, or the goalie with the most goals allowed per game, or the coward who has the fewest penalty minutes. (On second thought, the Lady Byng already recognizes the last one.)

Sports aren’t about winning, and they aren’t about pushing the limits of human achievement. They’re about shitting on people. We hope that with the 24-team playoff in the NHL, more people will begin to realize this fundamental truth.

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