Yahoo’s Nick Cotsonika has a piece up on the NHL’s possible plan to cancel the season if it can’t play at least a 48 game schedule. Cotsonika’s personal view seems to be that anything below 42 games is too little:
Cut the season by almost half, and the anything-can-happen factor would pretty much double. The NHL might generate a fair amount of revenue and win back fans quicker than you think. People have short memories.
Anywhere you draw the line is arbitrary. But 1995 set a precedent for 48 games, and go shorter than 42 games – the lowest even number that isn’t less than half of a schedule, a number that allows each team to play three games against every conference opponent – and the season wouldn’t feel like a season anymore. It wouldn’t feel like a regulation race; it would feel like a drag race with funny cars. It would feel like a gimmick, a mockery.
The length of an NHL season has nothing to do with the integrity of the NHL competition. Why do they play 82 games? Well, they used to play 84 but they agreed to wipe out the neutral site games in the 1995 CBA. Why were they playing 84 games? They players agreed to take a step up from 80 in the 1992 CBA. Why were they playing 80 games? Well, they were playing 48 games in 1941-42 with seven teams in the league. Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. Then the Americans finally got into World War II, a few years after it started, as is their custom – basically, if America’s there when a war starts, it’s probably not one that history will look back on and say “That was a good idea.”
The New York Americans suspended operations at the end of the 1941-42 season, in part due to Pearl Harbour and fiscal constraints imposed by the war. The NHL, if it wanted to have a balanced schedule could either have each of its six teams play the other five teams nine times for 45 games or ten times for 50 games. NHL owners being what they are, a 50 game schedule was implemented. In 1946-47, the first season planned for with knowledge that the war was certainly over, the NHL expanded to a 60 game schedule. In 1949-50, it expanded to a 70 game schedule and the schedule has grown incrementally ever since. The 1949-50 changes coincided with an expansion of the roster to 17 men from 14.
In other words, the typical number of games in an NHL schedule is not some magic number, revealed to Clarence Campbell while he ate smoked meat at Schwartz’s. It is the product of better ice making facilities, a willingness to ignore the fact that the ice is terrible in parts of the league in the playoffs, baby boomers needing entertainment and the NHL experimenting with finding the point at which the product cannot be diluted further to make more money.
Cotsonika quotes Gary Bettman in his piece as saying: “When we get to the point that we can’t play a season with integrity, with a representative schedule, then we’ll be done.” I agree with Bettman. To me, the governing principle is this: in order to have a season of less than 82 games that has sufficient integrity, teams need to play every team with which they’re competing for a playoff spot at least once and we have to be able to expect that, although we aren’t putting teams through the same test that they endure in an 82 game schedule, that we’ll get results somewhat similar to those that would be produced from an 82 game schedule.
How can we test that? Well, we can take a look at the integrity of a 28 game schedule by creating some fake standings that re-imagine the season as two seasons. These seasons consist of each team playing the other teams in its conference twice, home and away. We can do two seasons by just numbering a team’s games against each team in the conference as 1 and 2 (and 3 in the case of divisional opponents, although I’m discarding those games). We then take all the games numbered 1 and *poof* there’s a season. Take the games numbered 2 and *poof* there’s a season.
I’ve gathered this data for the past five years. The teams in bold are the teams that made the playoffs after 82 games. The teams highlighted in yellow are the playoff teams in my reconfigured seasons.
So, 10% of the time, all eight teams that made the playoffs would make it in the 28 game season, 30% of the time seven of the eight teams make it, 50% of the time six out of eight make it and 10% of the time only five out of eight teams make it. If you have a 90% shot at six of the eight teams that would make the playoffs in an 82 game season making the playoffs in a 28 game season, including most of the better teams, it’s hard for me to see that the schedule lacks integrity if you’re only able to run a 28 game season.
Nobody’s entirely sure as to the length of the season that the NHL was prepared to run with in 2004-05 although, given how late the season was cancelled, it’s assumed that they were willing to play as few as 28 regular season games. NHL revenues are probably non-linear; a 28 game regular season with no exhibition games and, say, 90 playoff games, would be 510 games as opposed to 1470 games in a season in which an 82 game schedule, with 90 playoff games and 10 exhibition games per team were played. This is about 34.7% of the games but, probably, significantly more than that in terms of the share of the revenues.
I would think, although I could be wrong, that having wiped out a season already in 2004-05, the NHL would be even more leery of doing it again than they were then. Yes, the fans and sponsors came back then but who’s to say that they’d do it again. In Canada and the parts of the United States where the sport has some roots? Sure. In the parts where it’s a novelty, without a history? I don’t know. My gut feeling is that I wouldn’t really want to find out.
Unless there’s something different this time than last time, something that we don’t know about, I doubt that the real drop dead date for the season is in January. It simply doesn’t make any sense to me that they’d be willing to cancel the season earlier this time than they did last time, particularly with the fear that what was excused once (when, however much I may disagree, there was more widespread support for the owners) may not be excused a second time. If you can play a schedule of 28 games that’s credible and legitimate, I don’t know why the league would cancel the season in mid-January.
Also worth pointing out: the mid-January deadline theory became popular after Bettman’s comments in early December in which he kind of implied, but did not say, that the league had a drop dead date in mid-January. He referenced the 1995 season and said something about the NHL not wanting a shorter season. It should be fairly obvious by this stage that Gary Bettman says a lot of things that don’t mean what they look like they mean on the surface. In fact, given that he’s clearly a very bright man, when he phrases things so as to give himself wiggle room – as he did there and as he has when trying to imply at various points that the NHL’s best offer has been made – it’s kind of easy to conclude that it’s an empty threat. I’m inclined to think we’re at least a month and a half from a real deadline.*
*Says the guy who figured the lockout would end sometime in November.Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org