Inaction at NHL meetings not necessarily bad thing
PALM BEACH, Fla. -- For a league with a history of shooting itself in the collective foot (the lockout, expanding into South Florida, those Art of War commercials), sometimes progress is marked by changes that don't take place.
And so it was that after much gnashing of teeth and late-night politicking, the National Hockey League's board of governors agreed Tuesday to maintain its current schedule setup. That doesn't mean it won't change down the road -- a system that sees teams play eight games against each division opponent is almost certain to change after next season, if not this offseason.
But the NHL resisted the temptation to make a knee-jerk decision to modify the schedule and will instead let it play out over the full three-year period envisioned at the end of the 2004-05 lockout.
By holding the current schedule and declining to change the playoff brackets, another proposal up for discussion this week, the league undoubtedly will draw some criticism. Yet, its inaction in just the second season after a lockout that scrapped an entire season might say more about the NHL's stability than about indecision.
Said one GM, not making moves tells fans and sponsors and advertisers the league is happy with its direction.
"You're asking the wrong guy if you're looking for disappointment or concern," added Edmonton Oilers president and CEO Pat LaForge, who sits on the NHL's business advisory council, citing last season's record attendance. "Now, we have the opportunity to build the business side. There are things we can do and we should do, but I think we're building off a terrific game that's been modified to a place where we all agree it's just super.
"It's a great product live. It needs to be translated into a better TV product, and we all know that and there are things we're working on. So I'm pretty happy with it. I like it."
The scheduling issue was hotly debated and many scenarios were discussed, including the reduction of divisional games to six and adding a home-and-home set with all the teams in the opposing conference.
"We spent a lot of time on it. It's not an easy issue," Anaheim Ducks GM Brian Burke said after Tuesday's meeting. "You can say that the fans want to see more nonconference opponents. But for a West Coast team, my club travels too much right now. It's not that simple to say 'That's something our fans want, so let's just do it.'
"We want to listen to our fans, but it has to make sense, too," Burke added. "It seems to have reached a crescendo in the last year because of two young players. Everybody says 'We want to see [Sidney] Crosby, and we want to see [Alexander] Ovechkin.' I got news for you; historically in all my years running teams, there's only been a couple of players where fans would call and say, 'Is this guy playing?'"
Burke said he can recall only two visiting players, Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky, who dictated whether fans came to a home game.
"It's never happened with any other player. People pay to watch teams. I think divisional rivalries are important," Burke said. "The fact that we have an aberration with two exciting young players right now, I'm not going to vote to change the schedule dramatically because we have two good players. They could get traded tomorrow. Then what do you do? It's got to have more sense to it than that.''
This is not to say teams won't continue to push for more variety on their schedule. A subcommittee will continue to probe the issue and try to find a matrix that works for all teams.
"We were supporting a schedule change. Our business is really based on your own fans, and every club has a different set of customers, if you will, and our fans on our Web site were voting for more variety," LaForge said.
Was he disappointed?
"I'm not going to jump. We're sold out. Our building's full, and by and large, that's a signal that they're happy. I think it would have been a good move to change, but I speak for Edmonton," LaForge said. "[Burke] has his own point of view, and it's good. It's valid. He's saying 'Hey, we're building something special in California right now and I want to stay with it right now.' You can't not support him because it's a key market, it's a critical North American market."
Perhaps the most logical argument for defusing the controversy, at least in the short term, was articulated by New Jersey CEO, president and GM Lou Lamoriello, who said the issue isn't so much that teams play each division opponent eight times but how those games are spaced.
He suggested a system wherein the season is split into thirds -- divisional games weighted to the first and third parts of the season with the middle section devoted to inter-conference games. "Think about it. If you open the season with back-to-back games of the rivalries, and then you don't see them for another two months, there's an anticipation," Lamoriello said.
Teams need to do a better job of giving the league scheduling options so this can be achieved, Lamoriello added.
The problem is that many NHL teams aren't the main tenants in their buildings and get short shrift when it comes to dates.
"We're going to try and get more dates from the clubs and more of a pattern that we can schedule with to see if we can do a better job of scheduling," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said.
The schedule wasn't the only issue the league did not act upon.
Although Bettman was in favor of locking in the playoff brackets, a la the NBA and NCAA basketball, wherein the winner of the 1-versus-8 matchup would play the winner of the 4-versus-5 seed regardless of who won, the proposal quickly was defeated.
Bettman believed the standardized brackets would give television more time to prepare and market the playoff matchups, but it created a scenario where a second seed could play a higher seed than the eighth seed if there was a first-round upset.
"It didn't get a lot of support. People battle all year long to get seeded, and the mood in the room was we just shouldn't be giving that up," LaForge said.
The board of governors will meet again in January, and a number of GMs believe the schedule will be debated again.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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