Missing the Boat
The league should reconsider its stance on revamping the schedule
At the NHL'S Board of Governors meeting in Boca Raton, Fla., last week, the notion of adopting a schedule comprised exclusively of intraconference games, which would intensify rivalries and cut travel time and expense, was swiftly dismissed, though general managers had been informally talking about the concept for weeks. "The board's view was there's no point in discussing the elimination of interconference games," says commissioner Gary Bettman. "It's really a nonissue."
That's unfortunate, because while an intraconference-only schedule indeed would be too severe a change, further discussion could have led to a worthwhile compromise: a predominantly intraconference schedule in which each team would play only 10 games outside its conference each season.
Currently a team's 82 games include five or six matches against each divisional rival, four games against each of the other teams in its conference and one or two matches against each interconference foe. Our suggestion, based loosely on major league baseball's model, would be to play each divisional rival eight times, keep the other intraconference matchups at four apiece and play two games against each team in a division of the other conference. (That division would change yearly.)
This plan would foster rivalries, which is what those who champion more intraconference play—among them general managers Al Coates of the Flames, Lou Lamoriello of the Devils and Jim Rutherford of the Hurricanes—want most. "We desperately need to reestablish rivalries," says Lamoriello. "I'd like to play the Rangers eight times a year, and Montreal and Toronto should also meet on a more regular basis."
One of the main objections to intraconference-only play is that it would deprive fans of a team in one conference from seeing star players in the other. That logic doesn't hold up, because with Wayne Gretzky retired, no star, not even the Penguins' dynamic Jaromir Jagr, seems to draw fans. This was underscored in October when the Mighty Ducks visited New Jersey, Tampa Bay, Florida and Washington. The presence of Anaheim's high-scoring stars Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne had little or no effect on attendance at those games: The arenas in each of those cities were, on average, only 62% full. "Hockey isn't a sport in which people come to see individual players," says Kariya. "They come because there's a big rivalry, like when L.A. visits Anaheim."
The handful of interconference games in our proposal also ensures that teams with wide fan bases, such as the Canadiens and the Rangers, would visit every NHL city once over a three-season span. Besides saving significant travel time and expense, the plan might encourage the NHL to shorten its endless regular season, which goes on for nearly 6� months.
If only the Board of Governors had not summarily dismissed talk of more intraconference play, a significant improvement in scheduling might have been achieved.
And to All a Good Night
Sadly, Flyers coach Roger Neilson announced last week that he has bone marrow cancer and must undergo chemotherapy. Were SI an omnipotent Santa we would give Neilson, who plans to continue coaching even as he receives treatment, a boundless supply of strength and a return to good health. We would also parcel out some less vital presents to others around the NHL, including: