In North American hockey the race for the playoffs is an exciting time. The top teams are preparing for the chance to hoist their league’s trophy – Stanley, Calder, Kelly, Memorial, etc. The bottom teams that don’t make the playoffs, well once their season is done, that’s it, time for golf or the beach. In the NHL, the bottom teams are looking towards the NHL Draft in June in hope of winning the lottery to pick this years top prospect.
In Sweden, hockey is handled a little differently. In the 14 team Swedish Hockey League (SHL), the top teams that qualify for the playoffs are in pursuit of the Le Mat Trophy. A trophy donated by a Hollywood movie studio and named after a movie director. Seriously. But more on that another time.
You may ask, what is so important about the SHL? Well, it is quickly becoming one of the premier professional leagues in Europe outside of the KHL. It regularly features future and past NHL players. The newly re-branded Champions Hockey League that features 48 teams from ten European countries has been won by a Swedish club – Luleå in 2015 and Frölunda in 2016.
When the SHL regular season concludes, at the end of this month, the bottom two teams are not quite on holiday yet. Before they can attempt to put a failed season behind them, they have to earn the right to remain in the SHL for another season through a playoff series. The Swedish hockey system works on promotion and regulation.
Below the SHL is the second tier professional league, HockeyAllsvenskan. Like the SHL, it has 14 teams and their pursuit is promotion to the SHL. However, simply finishing first in the league doesn’t earn automatic promotion. Nor does finishing second or even eighth. HockeyAllsvenskan has come up with a very intriguing post-season series to see who gets to play against the 13th and 14th placed teams from the SHL for promotion (or regulation for the SHL teams).
The playoff series is called the ‘MECA Hockey Race’ – MECA is the sponsor, and has something to do with auto garages and car parts. The Hockey Race features four different series and, like true Swedish fashion, has unique names for each series. So let’s take a look at this unique process.
Teams that finish third to eight in the standings qualify for ‘Slutspelsserien’. This series is a very different approach to a standard North American playoff structure. The teams embark in a round robin series, playing each other once and the team finishing top of the standings moves to the next round. But wait, before the teams even start the round robin play, some of them are already awarded points in the standings due to where they finish in the regular season standings. The third place team will start the ‘Slutspelsserien’ with three points, fourth with two, fifth with one, and the remaining three get zero. The team that finishes with the most points moves on to the ‘Playoff’ round.
While the ‘Slutspelsserien’ is going on, the first and second place teams are squaring off in the ‘HockeyAllsvenska Finalen’ – a best-of-five series. The winner of this series is crowned champion and moves on to the next round, ‘Direktkval till SHL’, while the loser gets set to face the winner of ‘Slutspelsserien’ in the ‘Playoff’ round – a best-of-three series.
Still with me? It’s almost done. Once the best-of-three ‘Playoff’ round is completed, the winner moves to the ‘Direktkval till SHL’ round. The ‘Direktkval till SHL’ round is a best-of-seven series (see, they have best-of-seven series too!) that has the ‘HockeyAllsvenska Finalen’ champion play the last placed team from the SHL. The ‘Playoff’ winner plays the 13th seeded SHL team.
Winners of the ‘Direktkval till SHL’ round get a season in the SHL while the losers have to battle a season in the HockeyAllsvenskan for a chance back in the SHL.
Not that complicated after all, eh. So that is how Sweden adds a little excitement to the end of the season. It isn’t just for the top teams in the league, the teams at the bottom also get their share of post-season suspense. The ‘MECA Hockey Race’ will start on March 1.