Schedule flux again exposes NHL's bad side

Updated: January 24, 2007, 2:16 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

DALLAS -- At first blush, the NHL's decision to maintain the current schedule format might seem like a reasonable and totally defensible position.

Despite countless e-mails and conference calls on the matter leading up to the All-Star break, the board of governors on Tuesday could not agree on how to change the schedule. So, the status quo will be maintained at least until the end of next season.

And it might be a reasonable position if it weren't for the fact that virtually every team agrees that the current schedule stinks.

Indeed at least two-thirds of teams believe the schedule is a problem or else the issue would never have been brought to a vote Tuesday. But the issue was put to a vote -- two, actually.

AP Photo/Tony GutierrezGary Bettman said he believed that riding out the schedule's three-year cycle was the best course of action.

A pair of alternatives was taken to a vote Tuesday. One would have seen a return to the pre-lockout schedule wherein each team plays every team at least once during the regular season. The other alternative would have seen the number of divisional games dropped from eight to seven with those extra games played against teams from the opposing conference. The board took a vote on each option, and collectively, it fell three votes shy of the two-thirds needed to effect change.

The problem is that the board cannot go from Step 1 to Step 2. While agreeing that playing each division opponent eight times is simply too much and not seeing all of the other teams at least once during the regular season is too little, they cannot agree on just how to clean up the scheduling mess.

The conundrum once again illustrates one of the league's great shortcomings -- that many team officials see just to the end of their noses, no further.

"It's a bit disappointing," said Edmonton Oilers chairman Cal Nichols, whose team has fought fiercely to have the schedule altered to allow more games outside the conference. "I think the best we can hope for is to go back to pre-lockout scheduling. The Western Canadian teams really made a strong case for going back to that. I think the Canadian hockey fans would sooner see us play the other Canadian teams than any U.S. teams."

More interesting was Nichols' suggestion that commissioner Gary Bettman should have stepped up and helped persuade owners to make a change.

Asked if Bettman should have shown more leadership, a surprisingly candid Nichols said, "I wish he would have."

Nichols said he believed Bettman should have encouraged teams that were opposed to change "to do the right things for the game."

"The politics seem to always enter into it," Nichols added. "I think we should be more concerned about the future of the game than specific interests or, 'It's going to cost me a few more thousand dollars to travel a few extra miles.' This shouldn't be about that. It's about the game."

Others were more diplomatic, but the message remains consistent: this issue needs to be resolved and the impetus to make it happen has to start at the top.

"There's no doubt there's pockets that are disappointed in it, and I think that has to be considered," said Minnesota GM Doug Risebrough. "As the custodians of the game, you want to make sure you're considering that, but you're also considering it on a big scale and not just a reaction.

"That's why I think at the end of this three-year cycle, there will be a very healthy debate and it'll get people to clarify what their objectives are. Obviously, I think the leadership of the league will have to step in and say, 'Here's what we have to do for the good of the game.' Because that's what the fans want."

Bettman seemed surprised that he had, in effect, been called out by Nichols, but acknowledged it's a difficult issue because each market views it differently. "He didn't share that view with me," Bettman said.

Unlike other issues that owners can get behind as a league, Bettman said "the schedule is kind of personal. It's market-specific, it's rivalry-specific, it gets emotional."

It might seem simple enough to suggest Bettman should have put his foot down and guided the owners to a different schedule. But, as he put it, "while some of you think I throw lightning bolts, the fact is I do report to a board."

Fair enough.

Bettman made it clear to the board that he thought maintaining the current schedule through the end of next season was the right course. The problem was that when it became clear the owners felt strongly enough about the issue to vote on other matrixes, he should have pushed them to make a final decision.

Instead, the league is betwixt and between. Not that the owners themselves aren't blameless.

If they could have put their own market biases aside for a moment and pushed that tiny bit further to come to a consensus, this issue would have been put away. Instead, it remains a festering sore and another example of a league that seems incapable of moving forward in a determined manner.

The holdouts, mostly in the East, include New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello. He insists that if the eight divisional games were spread out over the course of the regular season instead of being bunched up, as is often the case, "I don't believe any of this rhetoric would have happened."

Perhaps. But Lamoriello's team played its last game outside the Eastern time zone on Nov. 27. The Devils get Sidney Crosby four times a season in their building, Alexander Ovechkin twice. No wonder Lamoriello's happy with the status quo.

Can you imagine the NFL being in the same predicament, agreeing that something needs to be fixed, but being immobilized as to how to fix it? No. It would never happen.

The league is at a critical phase in its evolution. Despite recognizing a problem, it seems helpless to correct it. It adds to the perception, fair or not, that it is a league that lacks direction.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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