During the November 2007 Board of Governors meeting, the decision was made to return to the pre-lockout scheduling matrix ensuring every team sees each other at least once a year whilst cutting down potential periods of intercity activity from 3 years to 2. A considerable victory for the fans, at least that was how the NHL was selling it, the piecemeal offering to supporters also placated TV companies bored with repetitive league scheduling. However for many the measures did not go far enough and a new debate sparked when a suggested 84 game season was tabled for further discussion by the Detroit Red Wings.
Within the newly suggested 84 game matrix the permutations are varied but general consensus usually circulates about six games (three home, three away) against divisional rivals totaling 24 games, three games (a mix of one home or two home) to the other ten conference rivals totaling 30 games and two games home and away against all 15 teams in the opposing conference totaling 30 games. The subsequent extension of the regular season would be offset by a reduction of meaningless pre season exhibitions whilst ensuring every fan could see every team in the NHL every season.
Merely a suggestion doing the rounds following the great scheduling debate of last years post season, the 84 game concept has its fair share of supporters and detractors whilst underlining a variety of issues concerning the leagues size, product viability and sustainability.
Off course the biggest argument was that fans wanted to see the big stars in their building at least once every season, creating a need for home and away fixtures against opposing conference franchises. Fans only getting to see the likes of Crosby and Ovechkin once every three years was not a palatable concept and was particularly galling for teams in divisions such as the Southeast which struggled to muster enthusiasm for “rivalries” borne out of eight yearly games against the likes of, say, the Florida Panthers. Furthermore, established rivalries between the likes of Toronto and Montreal were bemoaned by opposing fans due to “overkill” on the part of the eight game interdivisional scheduling with the sense of occasion lost; familiarity not so much breeding contempt as tedium.
Whilst Gary Bettman was quick to point out that the league had seen average attendances rise three years on the run with interdivisional matches the most well received, he was not so rapid as to highlight the particular divisional matchups providing sizeable attendance data.
Detroit fans would be less than prompt in buying up tickets for a four game run in the Joe against the perennial crowd diminishing Columbus Blue Jackets, whilst many in the motor city are clamoring for a return to the original six matchups, traditional divisional names and alignments; a degree of feeling widespread amongst an increasing brand of die hard supporters.
Whilst a real return to core values such as the Patrick, Adams, Norris and Smythe may be pie in the sky, the decided and thankful retraction of the divisional schedule was the first recognition that the NHL is not working in its current makeup and size. Whilst some organizations continued to profit during the post lockout scheduling, the thread bare spread of talent and patchy nonexistent rivalry were, and to some extent, still are strangling the NHL and stunting its ability to market the game to US TV companies hungry for week in week out superstar billings.
A big burden the NHL faces is creating genuine enmity when the regular season ends, when Ottawa and Anaheim faced off for the 2007 Stanley Cup Final series they had not met on NHL ice since 2005. Additionally, the repetitive divisional matchups may have made for big games in the playoff run-in but were also believed to be creating lopsided conference standings, especially for teams in poorly stocked divisions. Naturally the decided change makes a lot of sense on so many levels but the 84 game debate signals the want for more; more exposure and more marketability.
There is however a notable sticking point in pushing forward an increasingly diverse fixture list. When the votes were tallied for the reintroduction of the pre-lockout schedule, the result came in 26-4, a sizeable victory with a noted opposition. The four dissenters in the verdict were believed to be Anaheim, New Jersey, Boston and the New York Islanders. Where the latter three were profiting from limited travelling in the geographically tight Atlantic and Northeast divisions, Anaheim were one of a number of Western Conference teams voicing concern over the extreme travelling distances cross-continental match ups would create. Where Anaheim was the only organization to oppose the return to a conference centric matrix, there would almost certainly be greater opposition in an 84 game debate.
This however controverts the NHLPA’s stance concerning travelling, with players believed to be in support of an 84 game schedule and increased balance if it saw a reduction of pre season exhibitions.
When the debate was originally tabled in November, the information from the NHLPA had not been received but the debate will almost certainly be tabled latter this year.
Whilst detractors are quick to concern themselves will the potential ruinous effect two extra games could have on the record books, my personal belief is that the NHL should be looking to shorten the schedule, to concentrate the matchups and to maintain sustainable interest in struggling markets. Perhaps employ a 74 game season with the three inter-conference games reduced to an even one home, one away make up, reducing games per week, allowing for an adequate spread of TV coverage as to avoid the usual canonizing of six teams to the detriment of the leagues other 24 and reducing league wide injuries. A shorter schedule would allow for more journey time and would see many teams spending considerably less on travel in a balanced schedule. It would of course see the NHL glean less revenue and shoot the idea dead in the water.
Personal digress aside, all eyes could be back on the great scheduling debate come the next GM’s meeting as players and organizations clash over how best to balance the leagues marketability and short term viability. Balancing the schedule further would be an undeniable victory of fans, more so in marginal markets as well as making the league a more versatile brand. With a decided increase in league revenue and players support the 84 game schedule is a shoe in if dissent from the West can be quelled.