29 January 2007

Can people please stop bitching about the schedule?

to be posted at SportsBlurb.com and SportingNews.com

Enough already about the schedule.

Perhaps the biggest off-ice story in the NHL over the past week (besides the $450 price tag for a new official NHL robot-jersey) was that after a year of pillow-talk, the NHL finally decided to not alter the schedule for next year with the vote falling one short of official approval. There was everything short of absolute promises from the league to alter the schedule next year to insure that every team faced each other at least once, which would alleviate apparent concerns that not every fan had the opportunity to see every other team.

So now it’s my turn to moan about the NHL and their schedule but I'm apparently in the minority in that I don’t mind that the present schedule stays as is. I've never understood the outcry about the schedule in the first place. As a frequent critic of the regular season for other reasons (unnecessary length, best teams not rewarded come playoff time), anything that legitimizes the regular season and the (artificially created) divisions is a good thing. A good schedule is one that encourages and develops rivalries – therefore seeing a roughly balanced schedule with 30 teams in six divisions where each team plays every other team two or three times just doesn’t make sense. Why not just lump all 30 teams together, take the top 16 at the end of the regular season and have a standard bracket where the top team plays the worst? (…and no, I wouldn't endorse that either...)

Yes, some or most of the criticism involves the apparent desire of fans in the Western Conference cities to see
Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Washington's Alexander Ovechkin, but that's a convenient way to summarize the position using high-profile examples. If an unbalanced schedule means a Montreal Canadiens fan never gets to see their team play against Jarome Iginla or Joe Thornton – I say that’s just too bad. In that specific case I’d like to think there would be more interest in both the short and long term in seeing them battle the Bruins six or seven times and foster some good old hatred again.

But here’s the rub – why is it so difficult to find a compromise that works for everyone? There are 30 teams evenly distributed among six divisions. The present playoff format rewards you for winning your division, so to make it meaningful you need to play a bulk of games against the four other teams in your division. How about six games against each team in your division (24 total), three against each of the others in your conference (30), and two against each in the other conference (30). That would give you 84 games total. Everyone gets a home and home against every team in the other conference to see how the other half lives. And you still play nearly 65% of your games within your own conference, (which to me is necessary because that's who you're battling for playoff position with), including six games against each divisional opponent. To make it even better, make it only two against your other conference foes, dropping the schedule to a much more palatable 74. There - was that so hard?

Another frustrating (and somewhat controversial in some corners) aspect to the argument of schedule restructuring is the fact that, frankly, just not that many people are interested in a lot of the newer NHL markets. And to be clear, it’s not just crusty old-time hockey fans or diehard traditionalists (guilty-as-charged, somewhat…). For instance, last month during a Detroit/Columbus telecast the network posted the upcoming schedule for the Red Wings. They'd played Columbus twice in a row, and were about to play Minnesota three consecutive games and then Columbus again. The announcer himself said that no Wings fan wants to see Columbus three times and something about "that's not a way to sell tickets." Which begs the question…why did the NHL expand again?

And in the end, there's the hard truth: this entire debate about the schedule is – as always in the NHL – masking a deeper problem. I understand how 32 games against divisional opponents that aren't really rivals could feel oppressive and repetitive. But can't anyone see the inherent answer here? There are too many teams. You've heard it time and time again, but the fact remains: there are too many teams, and in too many markets that don’t draw interest either locally or nationally. With 30 teams it is impossible to satisfy all angles - you can't have a meaningful schedule that emphasizes rivalries because for every Montreal-Boston, Buffalo-Toronto, or Calgary-Edmonton series of games you have
Columbus-Nashville, Florida-Washington, or Anaheim-Phoenix. I apologize to diehard fans of those teams, because I personally know they exist. There just aren't many of them, and certainly not enough to make this entire grand "let's make the NHL all things to all people" experiment anything but a horrible waste of nearly 15 years. Amazing how the suits can't see the logic (or lack thereof) here, and only have cared about the initial franchise fees they get to divvy up. The NHL expanded into far too many markets that not only nobody else cares about, but can't even generate interest locally (Nashville, Phoenix, Florida, Atlanta, Carolina - before you jump down my throat at the Carolina reference, they had to give tickets away during last year’s playoffs and tried restricting sales to out-of-town fans). So now there are so-called "schedule problems" because teams want to see more rivals.

My compromise schedule idea above shows how to emphasize (or force) rivalries while still seeing every team in the league using the present 30 team league. I know I'm not alone in thinking this, but if the league were to contract (and strengthen) itself to 24 markets (hint: not all present markets) I can't see how it wouldn't be stronger.


Since I’ve completely moved into fantasy-land here, just for fun take a look at this hypothetical divisional setup, under a more reasonable expansion over the past 15 years and see if you can’t see some great rivalries. Each team plays each divisional rival six times, each other team three times, giving you 84 games. I'd prefer less, so you can toy with the scheduling a bit (divisonal rivals eight times, other teams play a home and home and you have a nice 76 game schedule). Again, this is one person's (me) idea of a potentially streamlined NHL (and i'm not referring to the Reebok 9% faster uniform) that could have had excitement and rivalries every night:

Ottawa
Buffalo
Montreal
Boston
Toronto
Columbus

Philadelphia
NY Rangers
NY Islanders
NJ Devils
Pittsburgh
Washington

Detroit
Colorado
St. Louis
Chicago
Dallas
Minnesota


Vancouver
Calgary
Edmonton
Winnipeg (franchise move - take your pick)
San Jose
Los Angeles

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UPDATE: that was my "kind" article. here's how i really feel, as posted on SportsFrog:


fuck. i tried to be nice (not really, but i say it anyways). fuck Bettman and his NHL. fuck it all. we need a fucking revolution. 30 teams? fuck you Gary - get lost. you win the Cup and you're giving away tickets during the final two rounds?? WHAT?? gone - sorry Carolina. First place in your division and you're in the bottom third of attendance? sorry Anaheim and Atlanta (we gave you your chance in the 70s, you had Dan Bouchard, and you fucked up then too.). Alexander Ofuckingvechkin is one of the most talented and exciting players to come around in anyone's lifetime and you're packing 'em in to 71% capacity? damn you Washington, damn you straight to hell. Best team in the NHL and you have a HIGHLY questionable 22nd-best attendance in Nashville, as you're giving away literally thousands of tickets every night? get. out.

I don't even care about league popularity - i don't. in fact, i much preferred it when the NHL was a select club - nobody knew about it except the diehards. oh, we'd gladly welcome any new members, no question. except you had to do it on our terms, our teams, our game. The problem is that in trying to win casual sports/entertainment fan respectability you sold US out. the diehards. the ones that thought nothing of avoiding all human contact during a Nordiques-Canadiens series. Stayed up late for the second half of a playoff doubleheader to see the white out under the Queen in Winnipeg. ORGAN music. no exploding scoreboards. no robotic uniforms. no commissioner to speak of.

ok, it's not 100% bad - some (a few) of the new markets can be legit. fine. 16 of 21 teams making the playoffs was pretty ridiculous, i grant you. So here's how my league looks after some contraction and movement. i thought about going easy and not putting a team in Quebec yet due to no new arena...but that's one of the traps, isn't it? Le Colisee was an ATMOSPHERE. something no new arena has that i've seen. Hello La Belle Province. Winnipeg gets it no questions asked since they do have an arena.

Ottawa
Buffalo
Montreal
Boston
Toronto
Quebec

Philadelphia
NY Rangers
NY Islanders
NJ Devils
Pittsburgh
Detroit

Colorado
St. Louis
Chicago
Dallas
Minnesota
Columbus

Vancouver
Calgary
Edmonton
Winnipeg (franchise move - take your pick from the missing)
San Jose
Los Angeles

Top 6 in each conference make the playoffs, with the 2 division winners getting 1st round byes.

We chop salaries in the first year by 25%, go fuck yourself if you don't like it Goodenow. Salaries for premier players will soon rise due to the market but overall they'll stay lower than present day simply because there are less (idiots) teams vying for services.

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dammit. this league is gonna drive me to drink. it's all fucking marketing.

1 comment:

Scottie said...

Wonderful stuff, Rob. Loved it.

- Scottie