No sport wastes time like hockey. When training camp began a few weeks ago, the conclusion to the journey was more than nine months away. A child could be conceived and born in the time it takes an NHL team to begin training camp, free skate through October and early November, firm up their game and roster between U.S. Thanksgiving and the Christmas break, whine about the format of the All-Star game, revel in the joy of the actual All-Star game, play a hyped outdoor game, endure a dozen trade speculations leading up to the Feb. 25 trade deadline, hurriedly wrap up the regular season on April 6 more than six months from now, and finally begin a lawless two-month slugfest in seven-game increments for a glorious silver chalice to be awarded in mid-June.
The 2019 All-Star Game is in San Jose from Jan. 24-27. Hockey Day in Canada is Feb. 9, but hockey week in the U.S. is Feb 17-24. Note, it takes only one day in Canada for everyone to pay attention to hockey but a week of promotion in the U.S.
In fairness, Major League Baseball also takes its sweet time getting to the finish line. The October Classic now concludes in November as snowflakes threaten the integrity of the game. Also note, snowflakes denote a singular crystallized piece of ice, not an overly sensitive political partisan. But the grind of baseball is far different from hockey and does not include 25 mph head-on collisions.
As we all stand on the precipice of another NHL regular season, we should ask ourselves why it takes so darn long. Minnesota players like Jake Guentzel laced up for Da Beauty League in July and August to get ready for training camp which gets them ready for the season. Others join pools of players from their hometown to train and skate in July and August, too. However, there is no word if Brad Marchand and Sidney Crosby again skated together this summer, or if Marchand licked Crosby.
The NHL doesn’t even bother with consistent scheduling, unlike every other league. From week to week, a team could play on any night of the week. Teams may play four games in one week, but only two the next. The NHL schedule lacks comfortable predictability.
The regular season, as the 2017-18 Penguins learned the hard way, is a time for teams to create good habits and hone their game. But it doesn’t need to last into a seventh month. The really good stuff awaits after the first six-plus months, but in the meantime, it is like persevering through the first two hours of a Francis Ford Coppola movie; you enjoy it but know the jaw-dropping stuff is still an hour away.
Surely it is time for the NHL to adopt consistent scheduling. Fans should have a good idea each week of when their team plays. Players should be able to get into a rhythm, broken up by only a nationally televised game on the odd day of the week. Would it be impossible to play every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday with national games dotting the other days of the week? Teams play most Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, anyway. Make that an official thing and the promotion battle is won.
And surely it is time for the NHL to begin the season in September and make every effort to conclude by the end of May. It doesn’t seem so long ago, the 1991 Pittsburgh Penguins were the first team to win a Stanley Cup which was awarded in June (Ok, maybe that does seem a long time ago for some of you but not to those of us who celebrated it).
If teams played three games per week, with a few four-game weeks, the regular season could be concluded in 23 weeks. Even if the season did not begin until October, that would put the wraps on the regular season in later-March. The Stanley Cup could be awarded in May, and not coincide with the ever more popular (in the United States) NBA Final.
Imagine hockey solving its season cliffhanger during sweeps month, just a week or two after every TV show ends on their dramatic moment. Imagine players being given a few months of an off-season. And imagine the 2017-18 Penguins if they had an extra month to recoup, breathe, and focus.
Hockey is the greatest sport but never gets its due for so many reasons. Consistent scheduling would allow casual fans to build routine watching. The NFL and NASCAR built legions of fans with decades 1 p.m. Sunday events. From April to September, baseball fans can find their team on television or at the stadium nearly every night. Yet the NHL fumbles through odd schedules which relies on fans to it look up online, place magnet schedules on the refrigerator or simply guess.
This coming week, it is finally game on. Coaches will talk about “attention to detail” and “doing the little things” to win. Perhaps someday the hockey league will do those same things.