The NHL is the only league where you can't lose. At least not like you can in other sports. And even if the sport has the most affluent and educated fan base among the four majors, the fans are being duped.
We've been huge fans our whole lives and we can admit it: so are we.
Start here. Last year, the Toronto Maple Leafs were a fairly dreadful team by most standards. They were last place in their division, had the fourth-worst record in the East, were outscored by 29 goals and were an atrocious 78.2% on the penalty kill. Their record, however, was a competitive-looking 36-35-11. They were over .500!
But in the current NHL, who isn't?
Last year, in a 30-team league, just six were under .500. In the West, discounting the NHL's worst team—the Los Angeles Kings, who were all of nine games under .500— the other two "losers" combined to go a whopping five games under .500. Yikes! That's because the NHL has devised a clever marketing ploy where at least based on a traditional look at the standings, your team is never really out of it.
If you win outright, you win a game. If you lose outright, you lose a game. But both teams gain a point by going to overtime. And since you can still win two points once you're there, you might as well. Last year, nearly 20% of games did. The result is the weirdly ambivalent "OTL" column (that's not Outside the Lines).
Overtime losses aren't really losses. They are a point, and teams are happy to pick them up on the road. Talk to a player after a game and he'll tell after a tough roadie, "Hey, we're happy to get a point." They won something. "OTL" is the section of ambivalence. Those aren't real losses. They are, by any other name, a tie. The result is that in a 30-team league, since the league went to the new system in 2005, the league has averaged under 8 teams with a losing record.
Our opinion: very, very clever.
"I really like what the league has done. Brilliant!" says Jay Blunk, a SVP for the Blackhawks, who knows about marketing losses, having spent 22 years doing it for the Cubs before moving across town in the spring.
What better marketing ploy is there than to have fans see their actually dreadful team sitting at or above .500. "We're still in it," you instinctively think. And when did the league enact the new "everybody wins" system? Right after the year that doesn't exist, 2004-05, when a lockout killed the season.
"I wouldn't say it's a marketing angle," Blunk emails, when pressed. But?
"It's a meaningful addition to the game."
It is meaningful, and even paid sports observers like us are tricked when looking at it. It's artificial product enhancement in the most innocent of ways. Even serious hockey fans, such as ourselves, are constantly duped by the system.
Last week, when the Blackhawks emailed over news that they'd fired Denis Savard, included was the fact that he'd gone 65-66-18. Not bad! He was coaching nine or ten rookies last year, and a collection of spare parts the year before.
More over, his Hawks were six games over .500 last year by our count, at 40-34-8, though they'd somehow only outscored the opposition by 4 goals. Think about that.
Bottom line is this. Without malice, these people are still geniuses. Here is a league where over 75% of the time, you can feel like a winner. The only real question is, how can we apply this to general society? The loser in a Presidential election still gets a house in DC and deals with trade issues with Africa? Well, it could get ugly, really. Still…
Take Toronto from last season. You're a player on the squad. Given two options, how would you describe the team?
1. "We're in last place."
2. "We're over .500."
We think it's pretty obvious.