Friday, February 19, 2010

NHL Scheduling

So the NHL contacts me by email once or twice a month in order to participate in their "Fan Face Off" surveys. The one I filled out today asked questions about my XXII Olympic and NHL ice hockey viewing habits. They wanted to know what Olympic teams and players I follow, how many games I watch, and what drives my viewing choices. The choices are easy: there's only one game on at a time. Some start at 12:30AM EST, but I record those to watch later. I catch them all. (well, almost all.)

They then inquired about my NHL viewing habits, and those who know me know I watch a lot of games. It occurred to me that my viewing habits have changed over the past years. It used to be that I could catch the Islander games on Saturdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, while the Ranger games were on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. Of course there were overlaps on some weekends, but mostly, they were evenly spread across the week, so the did not conflict with each other. For some reason, the last few seasons have had both of my teams play on the same nights, and if there's another show that I watch on TV at the same time, I have a problem. I have occasionally had to catch a game later on replay, watch bits and pieces of both games, or find the condensed version (Rangers in 60) when possible.

Another scheduling issue that could be better happens when neither of my teams are playing on a given night: I scan the league schedule for the best game to watch on my NHL Center Ice package. This 'best game' to me, is usually one that showcases a rivalry or two top teams meeting. What I've found this year, especially, is some nights have boring looking games (read: non-divisional or non-conference), like the Panthers against the Canucks, the Coyotes against the Devils, while the very next night will boast Boston v Montreal, Sharks v Ducks, Washington v Pittsburgh, Blackhawks v Detroit, AND 'the Battle of Alberta,' all on the same night. Of course any fan of a team would be happy to watch their team in a game. For the avid hockey fan, though, a more evenly spread selection of games like these would be far more enjoyable than trying to choose from great games one night and fishing for a good game the next.

The last issue I would like to point out is the fact that I've seen numerous instances where one night boasts 13 games, while the next night has only one or two. There have even been days when the league was entirely dark, and I don't mean holidays. This season has dealt with a condensed schedule in order to accommodate the Olympic break, and if that sounds like a reason, I don't get it - it sounds like that would create the opposite effect, making the league fill every day with some game or other.

I understand that making a schedule for 30 teams in 6 divisions within two conferences is no small mathematical feat, especially given the required number of meetings between teams within and outside of divisions. I also would like to see each team visit the other 29 at least once every year. I believe that it's important to the game that every fan who wants to, has the opportunity to see every other team skate on their home rink.

I know I'm thinking out loud here, but bear with me - I am figuring this out. The math shows that this policy of seeing every team in every building every year would reduce the number of intradivisional, most-heated rivalry games that are so important to the fans and to my earlier argument.

A team's regular season consists of 82 games. Each team plays the other four teams in their division six times (reduced recently from eight). That's 24 games. Then, each team plays the remaining 10 teams in their conference 4 times, that's another 40. That's 64 games within the conference, leaving only 18 for the other 15 teams in the league, and I say twice. Playing each team in the other conference twice (once home, once away) is 30 more. To facilitate this ideal would take a regular season of 94 games. That's 'only' 12 more, but the NHL already plays in every month except July and August. The NBA also lasts 82 games, Major League Baseball plays a 162 game season, and the NFL plays 19 games. This is not the place for me to argue that 82 NHL games are far more intense and grueling than any of these aforementioned seasons. I'll just say that even though I could watch this sport for a 12 month season, these players deserve an off-season. Fairness dictates that within the conference, and especially within the divisions, games must be played in even numbers so that each has the same number of home-ice advantages. Suggesting that the number of intradivision or intraconference games be reduced from six to four and from four to two is ridiculous and will hurt the game's growth, perhaps reduce its popularity even further.

This game can ill afford to give up any existing or potential viewers and fans. The NHL has a history of alienating fans, when they should be trying to increase the fan base and grow the sport. NBC lost the opportunity, however, by not widely broadcast the big USA v Canada men's game on Sunday, February 22, 2010, showing the general disdain held by US broadcasters and the American public in general for the game of hockey, and that's just a shame.

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