LOS ANGELES — It’s about time.
Since the National Hockey League returned from the 2004-05 lockout, they have been playing a schedule that had teams playing their division rivals eight times and other teams in their conference four times, hoping to highlight and intensify rivalries, thus raising fan interest.
Although the league is enjoying record attendance since the lockout and league revenues, expected to exceed $2.5 billion this season (a league record), are on the rise, and television ratings are now higher on Versus than they were on ESPN before the lockout, there has been nothing to indicate that divisional rivalries have had anything to do with the increased interest in the NHL.
It certainly seems that the increased interest would have developed with or without the division-heavy schedule, that has done little more than make players tired of seeing the same teams over and over and make fans miss seeing their favorite teams in the other conference—yours truly has heard players from many teams and fans alike complain about the schedule this past season.
For example, this past season, Pacific Division teams did not face teams in the Southeast Division, which includes the Atlanta Thrashers, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and the Washington Capitals.
Indeed, fans of Pacific Division teams did not get to see their team play against superstars such as Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Ovechkin, who is the heavy favorite to win the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player.
The unbalanced schedule also meant that, for example, Los Angeles Kings fans did not get to see teams from the Northeast Division, which includes the Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Maple Leafs for three seasons until they finally showed up at Staples Center this past season—they had not played in Los Angeles since the 2003-04 season.
For long-time hockey fans, not being able to see their teams face all of the other teams in the league at least once did not sit well and the division-heavy schedule has been the focus of criticism since the day it was announced. But finally, at long last, the NHL is doing something about it.
During Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals featuring the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters that each team will face every other team in the league at least once.
“Every team will play every other team at least once, either home or away,” said Bettman. ”We’re moving from ten inter-conference games, almost doubling it going to 18. You’ll see everybody in the other conference home or away and if you see them home one year you’ll see them on television the next year. But there will be at least one game.”
“And for three inter-conference setups, there will be a home and home,” added Bettman. ”And we’re in the process of formulating who is going to be playing who in those home and homes. And they may rotate over time.”
While there has been significant interest in moving back to a more traditional schedule, Bettman said that the interest was not overwhelming.
“It was a move intended to create more inter-conference play, because while not a majority of our fans, but a substantial number of fans and clubs were vocal about wanting to move in that direction,” Bettman explained. ”We thought that was a good step in that direction.”
“If you look at it our best attended games are actually the divisional rivalry games,” Bettman elaborated. “So I want to see what impact it has on the business.”
The “new” schedule will be studied next season and adjusted, if needed. But as of now, it appears that money will prevent the league from going back to a true, traditional schedule where every team plays every other team at least once in each team’s home arena.
“There is not overwhelming sentiment that a home-and-home should be played against every team at the expense of the divisional games,” said Bettman. ”So whether or not we shorten the pre-season and go to 84 regular season games and play a little more inter-conference is something that at some point may get further discussion and might get traction.”
A huge reason for not going back to a true, traditional schedule is cost.
“I’m not getting an overwhelming sentiment from the clubs that everybody’s anxious to play home-and-homes for the reasons I said,” Bettman explained. “And also travel. I think travel is going to become more and more of an issue.”
“It is getting, not just for those who go to the gas pumps, flying, chartering, which all our teams are required to do, is going to get astronomically expensive, and while travel is an expense item, it’s also a wear and tear item on the players.”
While a return to a true, traditional schedule is highly unlikely, the NHL is making the right move by moving to a schedule that ensures each team will face all the other teams in the league at least once. The players seem to prefer that and fans should be able to see all the other teams in the league play against their favorite team, either at home or on television when their team is on the road.
Indeed, this is a good thing for the league and, as stated earlier…
It’s about time.
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