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November 1, 2006

A Scheduled Interruption
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 scheduling scheme.

Pundits like Duhatschek say that's a fan problem.

I say it's a Canadian fan problem, and nothing more.

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 Comet.

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 meaningful again.

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 said.

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 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 his hands!"

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 my HDTV."

Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for and the Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.




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