Preparations for the coming NHL season are soon underway. Just two months after the Stanley Cup parade and William Karlsson joyously killed brain cells to Abba’s Dancing Queen and the cheers of tens of thousands, players have begun working at home rinks and making travel preparations to arrive in their hockey homes for training camp and the nine-month NHL schedule.
Seriously, seven months and then another two months? Is that really necessary to crown a Stanley Cup champion?
The season the NBA is experimenting with an in-season tournament that will fill three weeks of their regular season, and eliminated teams will resume their schedule while the tournament continues. As interesting and potentially wonderful the idea, hockey probably can’t get there. Only one trophy matters to most NHL players: the Stanley Cup.
Does anyone expect level-10 intensity from hockey players for a December tournament? I join you in wishing it possible, but let’s not kid ourselves. Only two types of hockey tournaments bring appropriate attention and interest: the Stanley Cup playoffs and elite international tournaments such as the Olympics.
However, everything about the NHL schedule is broken.
A little background. A couple of years ago, the feeling around the NHL offices was disappointment after they felt fans didn’t want another schedule style similar to the COVID season, in which small two-game series and division travel dominated.
That schedule cut travel costs, conditioned fans to know when games would be played, and multiple games against the same opponent added a layer of intensity so often missing from regular season games.
There was a lot to like, but the idea to continue found itself in the trash can.
The short story is that a bunch of social media schmucks whipped up their followers against a more limited schedule and convinced the league that fans were against it. After high-level sources told a former Hockey Now colleague that plans were to resume with a similar series-style schedule, plans reverted to the traditional scattered game schedule we live with every season.
Problem No. 1: The lack of fomented division rivalries.
In fact, there are even fewer divisional battles this coming season.
Sure, I know Pittsburgh Penguins fans are dying to see the Winnipeg Jets as often as the New York Rangers. Penguins fans were willing to hold their breath and turn blue instead of seeing the New Jersey Devils, Carolina Hurricanes, Washington Capitals, and Philadelphia Flyers more often than the Buffalo Sabres or Dallas Stars.
The above is a slight exaggeration, but only slight.
The Penguins will face the Rangers only three times this season and visit Madison Square Garden once.
Such great potential lost. Hate drives hockey fans as much as love. It’s fun. It brings emotion. Emotion means interest and money.
I remain convinced the NHL doesn’t understand that younger fans have hockey in the palm of their hand. Every player and every highlight is an Instagram scroll or tap away. If a young fan is a Connor McDavid or Kirill Kaprizov devotee, unlimited highlights on demand are available on their phone. There’s no need to make sure those players visit every city every year.
Need proof? Edmonton and McDavid didn’t sell out in Pittsburgh last season, and Crosby and the Penguins didn’t sell out in Edmonton. Two weeks after the Penguins played Edmonton on Oct.24, the Vegas Golden Knights drew 1,000 more fans in Edmonton than did the Penguins. Yep, a division rival drew more fans than one of the greatest players of all time.
The first thing that any new media member learns is–don’t listen to what people say to you, watch what they do. The NHL should dismiss social media perceptions and go with what is right.
Problem No. 2: When do the Penguins play?
Football fans know their team plays every Sunday, probably at 1 p.m. There is little rhyme or reason to the schedule. A team might play four games in one given week, with a back-to-back on Monday and Tuesday, then Thursday and Saturday games.
Next week? A team might get three days off, playing Wednesday and Saturday. In the second half of the season, it might be a Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday trio.
Fans must be plugged into their team just to know when they play. Fans have hectic lives with family, jobs, youth sports, and whatever else we can shove into our waking hours. How many times have you turned on the TV and been surprised by the existence of a Penguins game?
It’s probably happened a few times to all but the most diehard fans.
TV networks need games on the odd nights, which shouldn’t be a problem accommodating. It becomes special (and annoying to traveling beat writers) but not difficult to facilitate.
With three games per week on a regimented schedule, an 82-game NHL schedule could wrap up in 27 weeks or less.
Problem No. 3: Too many games.
Did anyone mind a 56-game season?
The NHL doesn’t need a full 82-game schedule. About half of the NHL teams don’t make money in the regular season, anyway. Decreasing the schedule by a few games might even add a little urgency to attend games or maintain revenue by keeping the same prices for a few less games.
There are additional ways to raise revenues, such as an extra playoff series, but how much money would be lost by each team giving up three home dates and going to a 76-game schedule?
Further are the indirect benefits that wouldn’t show on paper. Shortening the NHL regular season by just two weeks could end the Stanley Cup Final in May. Surely, TV revenues would increase by finishing before kids get out of school and families start their summer. Perhaps more importantly, the league would get to the Stanley Cup Final well before the NBA Final sucks the air out of the American audience.
Imagine ESPN giving full attention to the Stanley Cup playoffs, unlike last season when Sportscenter once began with a full six minutes of softball highlights ahead of hockey highlights. A rant about it is buried somewhere on my X feed.
The bet here is that the NHL on center stage would raise advertising revenues with increased TV ratings.
The NHL problems are not insurmountable. The game is veering toward the salad days of the 1980s with jaw-dropping offensive displays, a depth of great players capable of amazing point totals not seen in 30 years, and a speed and creativity that can excite everyone for a full 60 minutes. Despite annual complaints about officiating or fighting, new hockey fans join our ranks daily.
The game has never been better.
Now, the NHL has to do everything it can to get the game in front of more people, more meaningful games, that is.