Today in the Globe and Mail columnist William Houston polled a group of hockey people whose job it is to have an opinion. The question was the number of games that should make up an NHL season. The list of pundits included CBC’s Mike Milbury, Nick Kypreos of Rogers Sportsnet and TSN’s Ray Ferraro. All rightly suggested a reduction in the NHL schedule from 82 games to 72, 74 or 76 would increase practice time and rest thus improving the quality of hockey we watch and listen to. I can’t find anything in that logic which is wrong. I also have no faith it will happen.
The quality of hockey is on the list of concerns of the NHL and the NHLPA but it is not close to the top of the list. I mentioned both the league and the union because both have to agree to a reduction in the number of games. Both sides discussed this during the lock-out and both sides dismissed it after looking at the numbers. Those numbers had dollar signs. Reducing the number of games reduces revenues for the teams and salaries for the players. Neither party was interested enough in quality to reduce the quantity of the revenues they share.
For the NHL and its owners, they sell to the public rivalries and star players. The players rely on the fact that the hockey paying public and the media does not expect the very highest level of hockey each night simply because almost everyone understands that in an 82 game schedule it is impossible to practice enough and get enough rest and recuperation to play at the highest level each night. Attendance across the league has not declined thus its fair to assume the fans have accepted this reality and are still willing to pay for the quality of hockey they have become used to.
So can both masters be served? How do you reduce the number of games without decreasing the bottom line? Maybe the happy medium is not changing the current system, just modifying it or maybe even increasing the number of regular season games. That’s right I said increasing it. It could be accomplished without increasing the actual number of games a player must play.
Right now teams are allowed to play as many as 9 pre-season games. Teams don’t have to play that many but several do because they need the revenues. What if you made the maximum number of exhibition games 5. You could add 2 regular season games and make it an 84 game season, have the mathematical ease of being able to have a true conference cross-over schedule and have players still play 2 fewer games or more depending on how many exhibition games your owner or president wants.
Players all come to camp in shape now so conditioning is not a reason for a long pre-season. Some players have told me that if their team is basically set and there are no real jobs to compete for 3 pre-season games is plenty to get game ready for the season.
General managers would not favor this type of system though because pre-season games are often a chance for them to see prospects and juniors in NHL like competition and it’s a great help in evaluating their progress or their ability to make the jump to the NHL. But the fact is any system will have a certain group or groups against it. There is no perfect system including the one we have now
The one thing I do know is, if the system is ever changed it will be revenue sensitive first and a quality of play issue second because the league and players are driven to make more not less on the balance sheet despite how it might affect play on the sheet of ice.
See you at the rink.