There's a bad division in this NHL schedule

Updated: December 15, 2005, 4:47 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

In the New NHL, some things were going to work, some weren't. The important thing was to try, to recognize that the game was broken, to tweak and overhaul, and then stand back and assess.

Most of the 2005-06 package, at least in the early stages, is passing muster. I'm amazed that an often stubborn league and power structure had the vision to not only revolutionize itself, but also -- at least so far -- stick with it.

Peter Forsberg
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesUnder the new schedule, some fans out west won't get the chance to see Peter Forsberg and the Flyers this season.

I'll even admit that in the long run, the dark season, though all but cynically preordained, could turn out to be the best strategy not just for management, but for The Game.

This is all a long way of saying that I have no intention to sit here and rip the NHL for what isn't working. That's even true for something as relatively straightforward as the scheduling format, which in theory could have been dissected and evaluated before it went into effect.

Sometimes you just have to forget the theory, put aside the calculator and let things play out, subjecting them to the "taste" test.

In this case, in the initial stages of the stretch of the schedule featuring intraconference games, a point is being driven home with the ferocity of a defenseman leveling of a forward with his head down at the blue line. (Where have you gone, Scott Stevens, a continent turns its lonely eyes to you, woo, woo, woo.)

This newfangled schedule, with its emphasis on divisional rivalries to the exclusion of showcasing the leaguewide product, ain't working.

Each Eastern Conference team visits the cities in one Western Conference division once each season. And vice versa. The cycle takes three seasons to complete. In other words, if you're a season-ticket holder in the Twin Cities, you didn't get a ticket price cut or a Wild payroll within shouting distance of the salary cap. You get to see the Oilers, Canucks, Flames and Avalanche four times a season -- and, more significant, Sidney Crosby once every three years.

This season, the Wild play once in each Atlantic Division arena, and each team from the Northeast Division plays once in the downtown St. Paul arena named after the monopoly power company that swears the cost of the naming rights isn't reflected in my bill.

When the Ottawa Senators, the league's best team, took a three-game, four-day swing through the West, the feeling in those outposts was that this was, relatively speaking, a Halley's Comet phenomenon.

For the players, and more important, for the fans.

"I kind of like the idea of division rivals and building up character games and all that," Senators coach Bryan Murray said this week. "But I really think that for the sake of the National Hockey League and for the sake of the fans of the league, we should be playing home-and-home against the Western teams, then play whatever the balance has to be within our conference and division."

At times, it almost seems as if the conferences are from two different worlds.

"I watch late at night," said Murray, in his first season behind the Sens' bench after a stint as the Mighty Ducks' general manager. "If I go home late at night, I watch the Avalanche play in Anaheim, because I have an attachment there. Things like that. Most nights, you don't pay a lot of attention because at the end of the schedule, it really doesn't mean very much and you have to focus on your own conference."

"When Hockey Night in Canada is on," Ottawa winger Daniel Alfredsson said with a wry smile, "you can watch the Western teams for two periods and then you have to go to bed. You don't know too much about the West."

Another confession: I used to think, and I have written, that playing 30 games against the other conference, the number required for a full home-and-home, wasn't a realistic goal. Two years ago on these very dot-com wavelengths, or whatever Al Gore calls them, I argued for a "relegation" first-, second- and third-division format that features eight games against division opponents.

The feedback was varied and generally constructive, with readers advancing their own alternatives. Most, though, had a common thread: All teams visit all 29 other cities every season.

I've come around to that point, and I think several changes in the NHL landscape and atmosphere make it more appropriate than in the past -- and also imperative. The NHL is trumpeting its New Product and the two-season wave of rookie talent, starting with Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, but certainly not ending there. (Yes, yes, yes, Ranger fans, that includes Henrik Lundqvist, who even Don Cherry will admit is no Hardy Astrom.)

And speaking of Grapes, if this comes off as ESPN sour Concords, so be it: It's very, very hard for the general sports fan to stumble across national cable broadcasts in the U.S. now. Even the sport's hard core loyalists still are getting used to looking for a station in the 70s.

It isn't a shameless plug for the NHL to say that the Center Ice cable package remains an amazing buy, but it also is a commitment of time and money that some in-house guardians of the checkbook won't approve.

More and more, the New NHL should be about showcasing the product -- in person -- and acknowledging that getting every team in every building in every season is at least symbolically important.

Absolutely, some fans are intrigued and excited about the increased number of appearances by traditional and regional rivals, and Flyers owner Ed Snider was honest enough to admit that he wanted more games like that than ones against, say, the Predators or even the Thrashers.

But the intradivisional emphasis is turning out to be an unfair advantage, and it also is a pandering to a power structure that often seems to lean to the Atlantic coast, and not just the Atlantic Division.

More often than ever, the Flyers and Devils and Rangers can be in their own beds by 1 in the morning -- well, if they so choose -- after road games. It's not that easy out West, whether it's the relatively isolated Canucks or -- in the divisional picture, anyway -- the Wild.

I'm also against a balanced schedule within the conferences, because under that system, there is no reason to have divisions at all. So at least five and, more likely, six games against divisional opponents still should be the goal.

With 30 interconference and 24 interdivisional games for each team as the starting point, for example, it would take some arbitrary decisions to make the math work if the goal is to stick with an 82-game season.

Regardless, the NHL should abandon the one-appearance-in-every-three-seasons cycle of intraconference games and go back to the drawing board … or the computer program schedule-maker Steve Hatze Petros uses.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

Terry Frei

Special to ESPN.com
Terry Frei is a columnist for the Denver Post. He is also the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

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