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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Exploiting the NFL

For those who bleed Hockey, a little slice of fictional heaven...

At 3:04 p.m. on Saturday, March 12, 2011, Gary Bettman calls the meeting to order. The required NHL staff was in the room with him, but there was a notable teleconference of the 30 NHL teams’ owners and GMs mutely staring back at him through the lone Polycom device in the middle of the table.

“Gentlemen,” he begins. “We are here today to get a GO/NO GO vote from all teams on the initiative I mentioned in a broad strokes email message yesterday. We are here today to determine if we, as a League, are going to exploit the NFL Lockout for the greater good of Hockey.”

He paused a minute for that to sink in. You could feel the nervous excitement through the electronic silence.

“…There are a couple of things to say up front,” he continued. “We have sent out back channel feelers to Direct TV, NBC/Versus, CBS, ESPN and FOX networks in the United States. Any deal we have at worst would have us splitting September TV rights with the NFL coming out of a Lockout. For example, we would get either the 12 or 3 p.m. slot on all U.S. networks on Sundays, even if the Lockout does not persist. This will elongate our season in some respects as we will discuss below. But for our efforts, we get the prime time Monday night matchup unless the NFL comes back on line at which time we will get another week night, most likely on Fridays. But until they come back, we fill all open slots with our games. And, of course, there is no change on games provided to our Canadian broadcast partners. The new revenues will obviously be substantial. But the overall increase in exposure is the crux of the impact to our League.”

Again there was a short pause of silence, calculated by the Commissioner to allow some comments to pass back and forth by owners and their GMs who were taking the call together. He could not imagine any dissent over these two points.

“…And before we take a roll call vote of teams, I need to add the following. In light of man games lost to injury we have throughout the season, and because we want to have our best players on the ice at all times, we need to provide a means to produce more recovery time. That has driven some recommended changes to scheduling I have had our Hockey Operations team burning the midnight oil over. I will now let them tell you what I am talking about.”

As the rundown of changes began, the fundamental transformation to how the NHL season is played are obvious. Those changes include:

1. The league will play an 84-game season. This allows for: home-and-away against all teams in the other Conference; three games against all teams in the other divisions in a team’s Conference, and six against Division rivals.

2. The 2011-12 season begins three weeks earlier than in 2010-11. Pre-season camps cannot begin before 20 August and end no later than 1 September. Teams still coordinate their own pre-season schedule, but nobody plays more than five pre-season contests. Regular season play begins the week of 3 – 9 September when the NFL is otherwise scheduled to kickoff. It ends the week of 24 – 30 March. Playoffs follow thereafter with rounds scheduled as follows:

Round 1: 2 – 15 April
Round 2: 17 – 30 April
Round 3: 2 – 15 May
Round 4: 17, 19, 20, 22, 24, 26 and 27 May

3. Season ‘special circumstances’ scheduling occurs as follows:

Thanksgiving Break 23 – 25 November 2011

Christmas Break 23 – 27 December 2011

All Star Break 26 – 29 January 2012
(‘Old Timers’ Game and Fantasy Draft on 27 January; All Star Game on 28 January)

2012 NHL Entry Draft 1 – 2 June 2012

4. Season weeks run Saturdays through the following Fridays. For all teams, two games are played between Saturday and Monday to facilitate weekend crowds and the increase in U.S. television broadcasts. Deference is paid to U.S. college football with fewer games on Saturdays than Sunday schedules hold. High profile rivalries are highlighted for Sunday prime time and Monday games.

5. Teams play Intra-Conference foes three times back-to-back-to-back and across Conference lines in back-to-back pairs. This facilitates short, sharp rivalries with no history lost between contests such as seeing a team in October and then not again until March.

6. Fundamentally, no team plays greater than three games in an NHL week more than four times during the season. In most cases, teams only play four games in seven days just three times. Where teams play four games in one week, the first pair is executed Saturday through Monday and the second, Tuesday through Friday. The additional recovery time afforded by spreading out the schedule can only work to our benefit in icing more complete teams.

7. While there are a greater number of road trips, travel costs are offset by increased television revenues. Road trips, due to alternating home and away schedules, are no longer than four games long.

8. The season begins with Intra-Divisional battles over the first five weeks and ends the same way. This opens and closes the year with a playoff-like atmosphere in all NHL cities, building momentum for both the regular season’s launch and the start of the playoffs.

9. The divisions also receive a reorganizational overhaul in order to tighten up regions and highlight strong rivalries. They look like this:

Eastern Conference
Northeast Division: BOS, MTL, OTT, TOR, and BUF
Tri-State Division: NJD, NYI, NYR, PHI and PIT
Central Division: CAR, CHI, CBJ, DET and WSH

Western Conference
Southern Division:
Northwest Division: STL, COL, MIN, CGY and EDM
Pacific Division: PHX, ANA, LAK, SJS and VAN

As a side note to questions, Hockey Operations explained i f Phoenix has to move to, say, Winnipeg, then you have:

Western Division: COL, ANA, LAK, SJS and VAN
Great Plains Division: STL, MIN, WPG, CGY and EDM

Otherwise, there are no further changes to any Divisions or Conferences.
The Commissioner then continued. “And in order to allow you to visualize these changes, we are sending you right now a draft schedule of matchups broken down weekly for the regular season.” With a nod and a stab in the air to indicate ‘ENTER’ on an imaginary computer, the file was sent to all teams.

Hockey Operations continued. “…When you look at the schedule, home games are in bold. Two bold letters to a lone team name means they have home advantage for the week. That happens for half of all game pairings. Two bold letters in a team name with a slash afterwards indicates which half of the week a team is playing and the desired order of home and away games. This facilitates road trips without bouncing away, then back home, and finally on the road again in quick succession. As you can see, this schedule is doable and frankly could have always been a course of action for play in a season. We just have not chosen to do so to date.”

The Commissioner interrupted the conversation for a short interjection. “Our intent for European games this season is spread them out a bit. We are currently negotiating for Calgary and Philadelphia in Stockholm 8 and 9 October, Washington and Nashville in Moscow 19 and 20 November, and Pittsburgh and Vancouver 10 – 11 December. Those games are indicated in red and white highlighting on the file.”

And Operations followed up with, “There is also room for scheduling options based on arena availability. Intra-Divisional weeks can be played on back-to-back nights with at least a full night off before Game 3, or can be played as a home-away-home triple with travel days in between. Our scheduling folks will speak with all teams about their constraints once you have looked at the schedule and discussed it between opposing clubs for a recommendation to the actual calendar. Are there any questions?”

“Just one. Are we doing this for only one season?” asked Toronto Maple Leafs’ GM Brian Burke.

“Good question. The answer is no. We intend to repeat this in the 2012-13 season and, using momentum from 2011-12, take on the NFL head-to-head. We will reevaluate our League position after then.”

A few more questions are asked before the vote, primarily circulating around divisional reorganization. There is nothing insurmountable, however. The vote is 28-2 in favor of pushing ahead from the teams.

“Ok then. We set it in motion. Work the draft schedule over the next week and we will have another conference call on March 19th to solidify our plan. Then we will go to the networks for what I am calling initial consultations for contracting the 2011-12 season broadcast agreements contingent upon the NFL Lockout remaining in place. That is all for now.”

…And thus is borne what becomes a fruitful extension of the inroads the NHL is making in the United States market which benefits the League, its teams and players, and Hockey fans as a whole.

Ah, to dream, perchance, to imagine. For in the dreams of (an NFL season) death what opportunities may come…

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