TFP's Greg Wyshynski defends the NHL's schedule, and thinks
recent criticisms about it are, frankly, unbalanced.
(WASHINGTON, DC) -- The Canadian hockey media has taken
up a fight with the NHL's unbalanced schedule, provoked
by the first visit of Calder winner Alexander Ovechkin
to western Canada last week.
One of many examples of their fury was Eric Duhatschek
of The Globe and Mail, who recently wrote about "how the
schedule isn't as fan friendly as it should be, in an
era when the league still needs to make marketing
inroads in some of its fringe markets."
The argument, of course, is that the NHL is screwing
itself by holding back one conference's stars from the
other through its division rivalry-based, geographic
Pundits like Duhatschek say that's a fan problem.
I say it's a Canadian fan problem, and nothing
Four of the top five young stars in the league — Crosby,
Ovechkin, Malkin and Kovalchuk — play in divisions without a
Canadian franchise and in a conference that sees Edmonton,
Calgary and Vancouver about as often as we see the Hale-Bopp
The problem comes from Canadian media and fans who feel they
have just as much ownership of hockey celebrities as they do
the game itself. How sick must Les Médias Hockey feel over the
fact that Crosby and Malkin will visit the swamps of New
Jersey twice as much as they will Toronto this season?
(Meanwhile, I don't hear any of them complaining about missing
the Islanders this year.)
The unbalanced schedule exists for the 24 teams <i>Sub</i> of
the border; the ones whose fans are more willing to pay
exorbitant amounts of ticket money to see competitive games
against other potential playoff teams rather than watch Joe
Sakic take a face-off or Dion Phaneuf run a powerplay.
Gary Bettman's scheduling plan is, like a Tori Spelling film,
"Made-for-T.V." American fans are more likely to stop flipping
and watch a game with a star on their own couches than pay
upwards of $50 to watch him take on the local team live in an
arena. Holding back those stars from certain cities each year
makes their national television appearances, and eventual
returns to these cities, even more "must-see" in theory.
Trouble is there aren't really any NHL stars in the United
States; they're more like "persons of interest." The NBA has
stars because it's always been a personality-driven league.
The NHL is in the process of selling its individual talent
within the context of its game; if it wanted to sell
personalities, a good first step would be to find players that
will actually admit to having them.
Credit Bettman's consistently self-destructive marketing
decisions in the U.S. over the last decade for strangling a
star system that’s only now getting its faint pulse back — I'm
sure propping up a dinosaur like Mario while ignoring easy
sells like Iginla seemed like a bright idea at the time, but
it blew any chances for individually marketing a generation of
post-Gretzky NHL talent.
It's different in the NBA — Bettman's old haunt — where fans
have been conditioned for decades to pay to watch stars come
to their towns, from Magic to Larry to Michael to LeBron. The
top teams in road attendance last season in the NBA were the
Shaq-and-Wades (No. 1, 18,988), the Kobes (No. 2, 18,812), the
LeBrons (No. 3, 18,798), the Iversons (No. 5, 18,627) and the
Duncans (No. 6, 18,331).
Check out the special ticket plans in NBA cities that have
some trouble drawing fans. They're either built around the
chance to see stars come to town, or slashing prices to the
point of near-giveaways to see some of the league's dregs. The
NHL has plans that address the latter, but instead of
marketing star-driven ticket packages to their fans, they have
ones that are geared towards seeing traditional rivals come to
town. Because that's what sells.
If there's one thing that's been proven about NHL attendance,
it's that rivalries move tickets better than stars do. By
pumping Long Island with Rangers games, pumping San Jose with
the Kings and Ducks, pumping the Southeast Division with games
with playoff ramifications, the NHL is enticing the
ticket-buyer to plunk down for games that "mean something" in
a post-CBA world where stars are just starting to become
The Chicago Blackhawks averaged 13,318 fans per home game last
season; they averaged 18,874 in the Red Wings' four visits.
Does the math get any easier than that?
Vancouver general manager Dave Nonis — in a recent speech that
showed the endorphins that rushed through him upon hearing
about Bobby Clarke's resignation have clearly affected his
rational thought — bemoaned the rivalry-based schedule.
"We should play every team in the league at least once. We all
pay the same dues and right now the western teams are getting
it right in the teeth for no good reason. We fly as much as we
ever did and the eastern teams don't do a bloody thing," he
Obviously those travel concerns have crippled the Northwest
Division, what with the Flames and Oilers both coming one win
away from taking the Stanley Cup in the last two seasons. And
obviously Major League Baseball has suffered through its
National League fans not getting to see A-Rod, Jeter, Ortiz
and the American League stars every season.
But when Nonis went on to say that he knows his "fans want to
see us play every team at least once," we return to the
philosophical heart of this unbalanced debate: That Canadians
want the chance to pay to see a star skate for 23 minutes in a
single game, while the majority of American fans are content
to pay to see 60 minutes of passionate hockey against a
division rival for four games a season.
The only common ground is that none of them want to watch any
of it on television.
Yes, folks, it all comes back to television in America; that
panacea, impediment, conundrum, or calamity. The answer to all
of our prayers, or the girl who teases the other boys while
she's going steady with the quarterback.
Television is the reason Jay Onrait on TSN.ca is plain
delusional when he contrasts the NHL's schedule with that of
the NBA: "Just imagine what you'd hear from the fans of the
NBA if 15 of the teams would only see Lebron once every two or
three years! David Stern might actually have a real crisis on
You know what you'd hear, Jay? “Boy, thank goodness the NBA
knows how to package and present their product on television
so I can enjoy watching LeBron play once a week in the glow of
Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is
a columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com and the Washington
Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine.
His book, "Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports
is now on sale.