The Kvalserien: One of Hockey's Best Ideas

The system of relegation and promotion has its share of pros and cons.  The proponents of the NHL-style franchise system can point to the Entry Draft as a logical means of equitably distributing talent across the hockey world, as well as the ability to place all the teams in the top markets in order to maximize revenues.  Critics would argue that the system rewards losing, offering the first chance at the top available young talent to the teams that lose, and that in turn inhibits the abilities of the top teams to build dynasties.  

The KHL has decided to follow the NHL model, complete with an Entry Draft system that rewards the losing teams like Metallurg Novokuznetsk.  There's a lot more disparity between the top and bottom teams in the KHL than the top and bottom teams in the NHL, and the KHL Draft isn't as effective in bridging the divide as the NHL's Draft, so it'll be interesting to see how it works out long term.  In Sweden, however, the promotion/relegation system is very much in place, and a spot in the twelve team Elitserien is available to any club team from any town if they are good enough.  Sure, it's possible that a team with a 500 seat arena could make the Elitserien, but realistically teams need to have large budgets just to reach the top 12.

Not every league is set up has an exciting means of promotion and relegation.  In Finland, the worst team in the SM-Liiga plays the top team in the Mestis in a simple best of 7 series.  The same format is done in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.  It's pretty dull, in reality, and gives playoff revenue to the worst team in the league (which rarely loses the series).  I like playoff hockey, and best of sevens, but I don't see this as the best method for deciding a winner.  In Switzerland, they do a whole playoff bracket of losers:  if you lose the series, you move on.  It's a bizarre concept and if you're bad enough (like 12th place Ambri-Piotta), you get three playoff series before your fate is ultimately decided...  and now Ambri-Piotta is up 2-0 on the NLB champion EHC Visp.  

Sweden, however, does it right.  It's a fair and exciting system, albeit one that could use a minor adjustment.  The top four teams in the Allsvenskan, Sweden's second league, join the bottom two teams from the Elitserien in a round robin, home and home series.  After ten games, the top two teams move on.  The tournament is called the Kvalserien to Elitserien, and it operates in the same manner for every level of Swedish hockey (there's a Kvalserien to Allsvenskan, Division 1, etc.).  

In a franchise system, the city of Malmo that is connected to Copenhagen, Denmark, via a tunnel and bridge would have a team in the Elitserien, as it is in a mega market with the second largest hockey rink in the country.  But the team just isn't good enough, and they weren't even good enough this season to earn a shot at moving up via the Kvalserien to Elitserien tournament.  You must earn your place with the best...  you can't just be given a top level team.

The Vaxjo Lakers, who only came into existence in 1997, started out in Division IV, the sixth level of Swedish hockey.  On Sunday, they clinched their place in the Elitserien with a 5-2 win over Orebro, another Allsvenskan team that was hoping to advance.  The timing is just right for the team, who are set to open a new arena next fall, which will seat over 5000 people.  They'll be in tough next year budget wise, but they've had a rapid rise in quality, consistently qualifying for the Kvalserien in each of the last three years before finally placing first in the Allsvenskan and blitzing the Kvalserien competition this year to qualify after only eight of ten games.  The team held a victory celebration in the city square already, attended by 5000 fans.  They still have to finish the schedule, with one key game remaining against Rogle on the 6th, who are in a three way race for the final qualification spot.  

It may be a round robin tournament, but it's exciting and has an end of the season playoff race type feel to it, with every game causing an important swing in the standings.  It's nerve racking especially for the fans of the teams that were in the top league the season prior, and it is nothing but excitement for the hopeful fans of the lower league teams.  Everyone involved in the process gets the same amount of games played, with the exception of the final Allsvenskan spot, which was decided in a mini-tournament between the 4th through 7th place teams (with Mora emerging the winner this year).  I'd do away with that part, personally, and just leave it as the top 4 teams based on regular season standing.  

Meanwhile, Vaxjo's promotion means that at least one of the two teams that played in the Elitserien this season, Sodertalje or MODO, will be relegated.  MODO is an institution of Swedish hockey, but even the mighty can fall in this system.  The two teams will finish out the Kvalserien schedule with a head to head matchup in the final round, at MODO's home rink in Ornskoldsvik, which could determine the team that advances.  Here's the remaining schedule and current standings:

Current Standings
Team Record Points GF:GA (GD)
Vaxjo Lakers 5-2-1-0 20 27:12 (15)
MODO Hockey 3-1-3-1 14 24:14 (10)
Sodertalje SK 3-2-1-2 14 24:20 (4)
Rogle BK 3-2-0-3 13 24:22 (2)
Mora IK 2-0-0-6 6 17:35 (-18)
Orebro HK 1-0-2-5 5 23:36 (-13)

Schedule:

 

  • Mora @ Sodertalje - Apr 6
  • Rogle @ Vaxjo - Apr 6 
  • MODO @ Orebro - Apr 6
  • Orebro @ Rogle - Apr 8
  • Vaxjo @ Mora - Apr 8
  • Sodertalje @ MODO - Apr 8
All games at 7:00 PM CET/2:00 PM EST.  

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