I hear it on many levels. The wife wants to know why I am in love with the longest-running sport of the entire calendar year. Fans grumble because they have trouble putting together the cash for a season ticket package. And the media, players and teams talk in short-sided terms of being ‘five games out of the final playoff spot, but there are 30 games to go….’
The simple fact is, each and every game in the season is important. Tell me you are not thrilled the kids could be quiet and your spouse had no complaints about you being in the back room watching that one game of the week you really wanted to see. Or see the face of your son or daughter light up because you got tickets to this weekend’s home game. Or witness the joy of the 2006/7 New York Islanders on 8 April 2007 when their Shootout Win secured them a playoff berth. See – every game is important whether we instinctively know it or not.
The problem is we do not understand the subliminal and overt messages about the manner in which the schedule is laid out that underscore for us how important each and every game is. If we did, there would be no problem explaining to our spouse why we have to see that game, or want to pack up the kids and drive for hours to get to the arena.
Below, I make a plea for the 84-Game season and explain how it should be laid out to in order to make it exceedingly obvious why 84 games need to be played from October to mid-April.
Laying Out 84 Games
There is a simple reason to ask for 84 games – the chance for 100% visibility. You have to go to 84 games to get every team in your building at least once in the season if you are going to also maintain the value of intra- and inter-divisional play. So here’s how you play the 84 games:
1. Play a home-and-home against every team in the other Conference (30 games). This allows everybody a chance to see every star in the League at some point in the season. It is also a grand way to sell a 15-game season ticket mini-pack. At the same time, it makes you want to retain some seats for sale to the general public based on how hot a particular team’s star(s) are when they come to your building. And finally, it subliminally tells the fan and teams the League cares enough to send the very best into their building. The last does not have to happen – heck, it never has in the past. But it does make it easier to go to the effort of getting out to the arena.
2. If you are playing two against the other Conference, you have to play at least three against everyone else in your own. That is to underscore the fact that competition to make it into the Playoffs each year comes down to where each team sits within intra-Conference standings. Accordingly, recommendation number two is for the League to give us three games against every team in the Conference that is not in our home team’s division (total of 60 games so far). This could force the League to plan the schedule two years at a time if the goal is to even out how many are played in each building over a two year stretch. I would argue here the league could also decide to play these however seasonal requirements dictate as long as they ensure the ‘Visibility Rule’ is adhered to. So no matter how you slice it, you would get either one or two of these games against inter-divisional foes in your building each season. If possible, also give us two of these games as a home-and-away pairing to take advantage of any immediate rivalries that may crop up.
3. Right now, the NHL’s emphasis on intra-divisional play is truly only overt in terms of Round 1 where, regardless of standings points, if you are the top team in your division, you can initially seed no lower than number three. This does these more-regional rivalries a measure of injustice despite playing these games six times per season. I say keep the number of intra-divisional games at six. But feed us those six games in groups of three as a home-away-home series and compacted over one each five-week period before New Years and again to close out the season (for a grand total of 84 games). It takes five weeks to play them this way because only four intra-divisional teams can compete simultaneously. But having an “Islanders’ Week” if you are a Rangers’ fan, or a “Red Wings’ Week” if you follow the Blackhawks is putting a proper emphasis on each and every contest between those rivals. Some other, overt benefits to this slight modification:
a. Does a team own its own travel section? Think of six-game packages in Toronto for both the Air Canada and Centre Belle contests complete with air/rail/limo service and hotel accommodations over the winter holidays and again in the spring. Are you there already? Or only get the three home-game ticket pack and reserve your seat at your local sports bar for the other half of the tilt.
b. The media will have week-long hatred fodder just like in the Playoffs to deal with for 10 weeks each and every season… Wait a minute… That’s like 10 weeks of Playoff series right smack dab in the middle of the regular season! Exactly. It replaces the subliminal importance of these games with competition that is just as overt as mid-April to mid-June. The advertising of these series, both planned and unintentional, will reach every level the NHL touches.
c. And for the players who must endure the grueling schedule, a five-week period like this would allow teams to conduct a weekly reset of themselves from current negative trends as rivalries change. Practically like rebooting your computer so the memory dump makes it run better, each week a coach only need tell players to “…Wipe last week from your mind and concentrate on beating the snot out of (fill in appropriate team name here)….” That is, if he has to.
So Mr. Bettman (and the NHLPA) – give us 84. In so doing, make the value of the long, grueling schedule an overt measurement of what it means to be a fan, an employee, and/or a player of the greatest sport on the face of the frozen earth. Give us every team in our building at least once. And give us our rivalries in doses that present us with the electric feel of the Playoffs for 10 weeks out of the regular season. Do all of this, and it makes it that much easier to be your ambassadors of the Great Game.