Tuesday, January 23, 2007

When looking for common sense, don’t cast a glance towards the NHL governors.

Well, my fearless prediction of a bit of sanity to the schedule makers’ routine was a bit off base after all. The NHL Board of Governors sat down in the big boardroom on Tuesday, rolled up t heir sleeves and brought out the elbows. In an 19 to 11 vote, the NHL chose to stick with their current scheduling systems, weighted as it is to divisional and conference play and keeping some of the higher profile teams away from the boondocks outside of their conferences.

The league turned aside the plan, which featured six divisional games and 18 games against the other conference. This at least would provide glimpses of the teams from the far off kingdoms once and a while.

This decision will guarantee at least one more year of endless inter divisional matches and a nice tidy travel package for the north east teams of the Atlantic coast, many of which can go months before they even have to leave their own time zone.

There was the promise that the situation will be addressed once again after the current “cycle” is completed, but for next year it will be much more of the same. A situation that isn’t particularly good for the long term strength of the game.

If you deny a wide swath of your fan base the opportunity to see some of the best stars in the game on a year to year basis, then you shouldn’t be terribly surprised to see the interest in your league drop off.

We tap the CBC sports site for the nasty details from Scott Morrison.

The NHL schedule: better wait 'til next year
Last Updated Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2007
by Scott Morrison

DALLAS - It is going to happen, rest assured. One day the schedule format in the NHL is going to change, but that day just wasn't Tuesday.

And the day the change happens won't arrive until after next season.

Indeed, after the league's board of governors Tuesday debated and contemplated two scheduling scenarios (first was a switch to six division games, the second a switch to seven division games), they could not reach a consensus, thus the unbalanced schedule will remain for a third season to complete its cycle.

"After that," predicted Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jimmy Rutherford, "I think there will be change. We just don't know what it will be."

And that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

For a variety of reasons, the league's deepest thinkers barely resisted the temptation to change now, with one key reason being the current uncertainty over where the Pittsburgh Penguins will be playing next year.

Interestingly, when the governors met in December and first decided not to change the matrix, 23 teams supported the notion of considering proposals. Tuesday, that number was down to the required minimum of 20.

So the discussion ensued. When it came time to vote on the first proposal, of going back to the pre-lockout scenario of six division games, four conference and 18 other, it was rejected by a 19-11 vote. The scenario of reducing to just seven division games, which was supported by commissioner Gary Bettman, was voted down 18-12. One or two votes short.

"One vote," said Rutherford, "or one-third of the league opposed it."

Good point.

What was interesting is that Ottawa did not entirely favour the proposals and it's believed Montreal didn't, either. Ottawa wanted to see a reduction in the number of conference games, not division. They proposed going to seven division and three conference games. There was no vote on that proposal.

"We decided the schedule we are using now is a three-year cycle and we haven't finished the second year of it," said Rutherford. "You can't be changing every one or two years. It makes more sense to take more time and study it."

Since the league's first expansion in 1967 they have used 13 different scheduling formats. So, obviously, finding one for the ages as the league changes and the personnel change is not easy. Or perhaps not even practical. One of the big issues now, of course, is that there are teams that want to see Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin every year. Others want that and for the Canadian teams to play each other every year. That won't happen next year. Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa won't play the western Canadian teams.

As one governor put, though: "We need to sell the game itself, not just games against one or two players."

Of course, they need to market those players to sell the game, which leads to something of a conundrum. How do you fully expose them if they don't play against every team, every year?
A variety of teams, obviously, are not pleased with the results of Tuesday, though, interestingly the 19 that voted for one format and the 18 that voted for the other didn't involve all the same teams. So, in essence, there was an appetite for change but not everyone could agree on the meal.

One team that is not pleased are the Edmonton Oilers, whose governor Cal Nicholls was asked he if wished Bettman had shown more leadership in pushing through change. Nicholls said: "I wish he would have" then alluded to politics interfering with the good of the game.

In the end, there were no shortage of hard feelings, just as they were in Florida two months ago the first time this exercise failed.

"It was decided to finish the cycle and decide what to do after that," said Bettman. "We've started something and we are going to finish it. Our research shows that most fans like it the way it is. That's why I felt if we were going to tweak it, let's have the least amount of change (eight division games to seven)."

That day will come. But it is at least 365 days away.

Meantime, if the league can avoid having teams play five times in 20 days, or three times in 10 days, it might make the existing schedule a little easier to digest.

NOTES: In other business, the league is looking to improve the video review process by upgrading the technology in buildings over the summer, with improved positioning and the addition of high definition cameras. They are also planning on putting a monitor in the penalty boxes so the referees can see the review and be hooked up to the Toronto review room. The Toronto office would still make the calls, but the referees would be able to discuss and understand them ... On the Penguins arena front, discussions continue but the 30-day deadline Mario Lemieux set arrives Feb. 4. The sense is for purposes of potentially relocating and scheduling, a decision will have to be made in the next two weeks ... Montreal was awarded the 2009 NHL all-star game. It coincides with celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the franchise.

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