It’s June. The time of year when temperatures warm up, days get longer and winter’s marquee sport enters its most important period of play, the Stanley Cup Final. This is absurd. The only kind of ice anyone should be thinking about right now is the type that goes in lemonade.
Even for me, a hockey enthusiast born and raised in chilly Canada, staying focused for Thursday’s Game 5 between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues this close to summer is a challenge. Worse yet for the sport, potential viewers who aren’t die-hard fans are turned off from tuning in at all. And it’s not just the dissonant weather and the long slog the NHL is asking newcomers to undertake. The timing also means hockey is facing off against a sport with greater worldwide popularity — basketball — that is also in the midst of its showcase playoff run.
The only kind of ice anyone should be thinking about right now is the type that goes in lemonade.
The Stanley Cup Final should provide the best chance for hockey to capture a fresh audience. For that reason alone (though there are many others), the NHL needs to retool its schedule to condense the season and move the completion of the playoffs up to May. It’s a sweet spot in the North American sports cycle — interest in the NBA postseason is still relatively low and baseball is only in its second month — and the switch would allow hockey players to enter the most intense stretch of the season at peak performance.
While the NHL and NBA both hold 82-game regular seasons and four rounds of best-of-seven playoffs, they differ in the quality of play during the postseason. The NBA’s first round is considered the least entertaining. It rarely features an upset where David beats Goliath. As the basketball playoffs move into the second and third rounds, the matches build up and interest grows. By the time the NBA Finals arrive, basketball is at maximum interest.
In contrast, the NHL’s first round of playoffs is considered one of the most entertaining in professional sports. This year didn’t disappoint. Six of the eight opening-round series featured the lower-seed team defeating the favorite, including the regular-season best Tampa Bay Lightning getting swept in four games by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Since hockey is a contact sport, though, by the time the Stanley Cup Final arrives, players are competing hurt to a much higher degree than in basketball; it becomes a war of attrition more than a display of skill. The final round of the playoffs should be when your product is at its pinnacle, and it’s hard to argue that hockey is displaying its best after so many games played.
The optimal solution would be to cut the number of regular-season NHL games to around 70, reducing the regular season by approximately three-and-a-half weeks. But since that would reduce revenue as well, it’s unlikely to happen in the immediate future.
Training camps open in the second week of September, with teams then playing eight exhibition games that are virtually meaningless.
The quicker solution would be to cut down the preseason. Training camps open in the second week of September, with teams then playing eight exhibition games that are virtually meaningless.
Most teams’ rosters are set except for a few vacancies, obviating the need for an extended preseason “tryout” period. Coaches maintain that the games are important to determine line combinations and build chemistry, but so many changes occur throughout the season that it throws the significance of the long wait into question. Training camp also used to be a time for players to get in shape, but being a professional athlete is now a year-round job. Players are working out all summer to ensure they come to camp ready to compete. The three weeks there is a waste.
Cutting the pre-season is the easy part. But reducing the schedule to 70 games from 82 should be the long-term goal. It’s not a totally heretical or delusional concept: Overseas leagues play only through March or April, and as professional North American sports franchises have evolved, so, too, have their approaches to the season. NHL teams routinely rest star players during the regular season so they are in better condition for the playoffs. (In 2016, stars like P.K. Subban and Nathan MacKinnon suffered injuries in the final month of the season.)
Indeed, the regular season is so long that players recently negotiated a break of five days in the middle of the year. No team activities are allowed to occur during this mental and physical vacation. It's a great first step, but a regular season that doesn’t go into June would be even better.
Owners will complain that they need the long season to keep their buildings filled and sell more merchandise. But they could alienate the very people they want to bring in when favorite players aren’t there because of injury.
And they have a big cushion. NHL revenues are increasing, and the league’s U.S. television contract expires at the end of the 2020-21 season. Based on current revenue growth and the networks falling over themselves to bid for sports rights, the league should be able to substantially improve on the $200 million per year it currently receives. Other income opportunities like corporate logos on jerseys (as the NBA recently instituted) can aid in covering any short-term financial gap from trimming the schedule.
The NHL will still have opportunities to keep hockey, like the other major league sports, in the news cycle 365 days a year. The NHL awards and the draft of new players take place in June. Teams hold development and summer camps for rookies in June and July. These are all good opportunities to satiate dedicated hockey fans and their year-long interest — while shortening the official season so new fans will be drawn to their ranks.