Here at OGA, we believe there is never a horse too dead to kick again. Principally, we like to hypothesize on modification of the NHL schedule. So here we go one more time.
But we would like to do it with an eye toward an overall vision for the NHL. Take this if you want it, Mr. Bettman – there’s no charge for this recommendation.
A vision – sometimes called ‘mission’ – statement has to have a simple, clear direction while allowing for an ample margin of flexibility. So here is our recommendation:
The NHL will grow the game of professional hockey over the next five years in order to increase the game’s marketability against other professional sports.
Simple, yes? In fact, it can easily be argued it sounds like the unofficial vision of the NHL already. The difference from our perspective is in how that vision is executed.
It Starts With Organizing ‘The Product’
‘The Product’ here is the presentation of the game to fans and media outlets. In our humble opinion, it has never been better (with the exception of the excitement of the 1980 Olympics and the Edmonton Oiler Stanley Cup era). That said, there are some tweaks that can be applied. Why do it? Because the NHL is on the cusp of passing up other major North American sports in popularity. (And we might add it may be a great year for exploitation if the NFL does not get its CBA in place.) And to tip something over the edge in the direction you want it to go, you apply some obvious pressure to make it happen.
After the words ‘…in order to…’ above, there are two ways to look at how to ‘…increase the game’s marketability….’ On one hand, you can succumb to the position that the NHL can attempt to avoid the draw of college and NFL football as much as possible. Or, you can cross check them into the boards and take them head on, a character trait that runs deep in the core of Hockey.
Take ‘em on, we say.
So in that vein here is our recommendation for The Product, our overall 2011/12 schedule:
27 AUG – 8 SEP 11 (Camp/Pre-Season)
10 SEP – 31 MAR (Regular Season)
23 – 25 NOV Thanksgiving Shutdown
20 DEC – 2 JAN Trade Moratorium
23 – 27 DEC Christmas Shutdown
26 – 29 JAN All-Star Break
26 JAN Fantasy Draft
27 JAN Skills Competition
28 JAN All Star Game
26 FEB – 31 MAR Division Triples
3 – 16 APR (Round 1 Playoffs)
18 – 1 MAY (Round 2 Playoffs)
3 – 16 MAY (Round 3 Playoffs)
17 – 30 MAY (Finals)
1 JUN – Annual NHL Awards Show
2 JUN – Round 1 of Entry Draft
3 JUN – Entry Draft Complete
Our BFO (Blinding Flash of the Obvious) here is recommending starting Training Camp and Pre-Season earlier than in the past. The reasoning is two-fold. First and foremost is to allow for a more predictable schedule (three games per week) with a less games-to-days ratio (1:2.3) that allows for better team and player regeneration. And second is to complete the regular season (on 31 March) and entire season (2 June) earlier than normal.
Most teams have three-to-four days of camp at their facilities before striking out on the road for pre-season games. This schedule would also limit the number of games a team can play in pre-season to no more than five. But in the spirit of "...grow(ing) the game of professional hockey...," teams would have to play at least two games every pre-season in a location where NHL teams do not regularly play.
In conjunction with what is likely the first or second major week of college football and in direct confrontation with the NFL opening weekend – if they have a season this year – the NHL would begin the season with 100% of teams playing on opening night, 10 September 2011. For the sake of those who are nervous about taking on the NFL, weekly games through much of the NFL’s season can hover on Tuesdays through Saturdays. But I would say for the two big brass ones the NHL has, every Sunday and Monday should have premium games scheduled as well – the kind that give a fan of both sports a dilemma as to which channel to tune in.
There will be stoppages for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the All Star Weekend. The Moratorium on trades over the Christmas holidays will run longer, and the Christmas/Boxing Day break will be both two days before and after Christmas Day, all for the sake of NHL families.
If this schedule continues on out into the future, taking back all but Thanksgiving Day and the three days with Christmas Day residing in the middle buys back one week of an Olympic Break every four years. And then adding one more week into the schedule to make 14 days’ room for the Olympics would simply carry the season’s conclusion out to about where it sits now.
On the surface, 10 September through 31 March minus stoppages is 27.5 weeks. Why so long? That also calls for a two-fold answer.
First is because scheduling guidance would call for teams to play no more than three games per week. The one-game-to-2.33-days ratio will allow for better recovery of the NHL’s key asset, its players. And it lessens strain across the board on all teams’ operations and logistical support. Tell me that could not be of great use when you currently see the rash of injuries in the League, to include to Sidney Crosby, one of the NHL’s great draws.
And second is because the schedule increases to 84-games. That’s to cover one home-and-away game against every other team in the League, one more against inter-conference foes (for a total of three), and four more against intra-divisional rivals (for a total of six). On a higher level, there is now an opportunity for everyone to see Ovechkin, Crosby, the Sedins, Pronger, Doughty, Thomas and all of the other players at least once a year.
But down between the lines, and in further support of "...increasing the game’s marketability..." is the five weeks at the end of the schedule called “Division Triples.” In four of those five weeks, teams would play a home-away-home, three-game, uninterrupted mini-series against a division rival. You then get your ‘Hated Red Wings’ week for Blackhawk fans, or your ‘Visser la Bruins’ week for a Habs passionné with all of the media-supported and driven passion that entails. It brings a playoff-like, pre-playoffs atmosphere to every barn in the League before season end. The fifth week is to round out the rest of the schedule and is required because of the odd number of division teams.
Why the three-game mini-series? What’s the ‘So what?’ in that. Here’s the numbers. Through contests ending 11 February of the current season, 381 of 827 / 46.1% of all games played have ended in a one goal deficit. For all Stanley Cup playoff games since the Lockout, 4% more games than that did likewise. But specifically in what On Goal Analysis has called the Black and Blue Schedule, for 18 of 30 back-to-back, uninterrupted pairs of games played this season, 10 of 18 / 55.5 % of those pairs were one-goalers. Other key stats include the facts that 44.4% of those B&B games have seen the second game’s winner not the same as the first games’ victor and 50% of second games displayed an increase in PIMs. These statistical rationalizations would be natural fuel for the personal and media-driven, emotional reactions that would occur during such events as a three-game Battle of Alberta.
Bring us the Division Triples!
Oh, and don’t wait weeks for the Annual Awards Show and Entry Draft after the Stanley Cup finals either. A couple nights after the Stanley Cup Finals are complete, BAM! have the Annual Awards Show. Don’t wait – go while the season is fresh in everyone’s mind. And then hold the Entry Draft, the single event that gives each and every team (and drafted player) a glimpse at, and hope for, the future, on its heels. THAT puts the bow on top of the whole package that is an NHL year.
You Said ‘Vision’…
That term implies seeing something else down the road. We say for that ‘next five years,’ the NHL can truly test the bounds of practicality in expanding one day to Europe. For an investment in team and program support, the NHL can foster a regular, pre-season playing regimen with teams in Ireland, England, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Russia. Ten teams conducting their pre-season in those countries with exhibition games between local, professional or all-star clubs and other NHL teams in Europe would give a September NHL presence in ‘The Old Country.’ It would also give teams a taste of international play that helps everyone’s psychological preparations for the Olympics.
If it is attempted, a diving board for potentially expanding the NHL by 10 European teams at some point will be put over the pool, allowing the League to determine when, where, and even if a splash will be heard. But in terms of a vision, options are opened to grow the game beyond even North America.
In terms of a vision, the NHL should grow the game to increase its marketability against other professional sports. Screw football – you can like it, but you’re not going to love it like you will love hockey. That should be the NHL’s mindset.
Increase the length of the season to decrease the number of games played weekly allowing more recovery time for players and a more manageable pace for hockey operations and logistics.
Give us the Division Triples because four home-away-home weekly series in the last five weeks of the season will increase fan anticipation and drama to a crescendo each week, bring fans out of their seats for the greater PIM-driven passions that ensue, keep them on the edge of their seats as more than half of the games end with a one goal deficit, and bring everyone to a lather for the Stanley Cup finals.
And exploit the pre-season to test the viability of expansion into Europe. Make it at least a three-year experiment so all 30 NHL teams would have the opportunity to play in Europe over a weeklong (+), pre-season timeframe – expansion of the NHL eastward would require it in the normal course of a season. Or find out it is not viable and pour all of your efforts entirely into North America expansion.
It’s a vision. That’s our $.02 free of charge.