Does A Shortened Season Produce Better Hockey?


Old Bethpage, N.Y.-After watching the incredible Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals, it got me thinking; how exciting was this shortened season?

Sure, we hated to wait until mid-January to watch hockey. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. Boy were we fond! Seven months away from the sport we love was torturous. But, eventually opening night arrived and we were rewarded with some really great hockey. Yes, all hockey is great hockey, but there was something special, something unique about this season.

We remembered what life was like without hockey and we didn’t like it. But, the time off helped to make every matchup thereafter that much more meaningful.  Not one game went unnoticed or uncontested.

People around the baseball world have complained for years that there’s not nearly enough emphasis placed on the regular season. So, they made some changes. They added an extra playoff spot, and a one game playoff. This ensures that winning the division is of the utmost importance.

The NHL will be making some of its own changes next year with the realignment and the new schedule format.

But, should they be making some other changes?

No one is suggesting that we stick with a 48 game season. That’s far too little for anyone’s taste.  However, with all the extra rounds of playoffs, and this season stretching close to early July, maybe it’s time to scale things back a little.

Take this little factoid into consideration: When the New York Islanders won their first Stanley Cup, it was May 24, 1980. This year, the playoffs did not even start until April 30th.  Round 2 didn’t end til May 29th. Something is wrong.

While 48 games may be too little, is 82 too much? I don’t know if it’s the teams involved, player voracity brought on by a shorten season, or the eagerness of the league to win back fans after one of the dumbest work stoppages in sports history. But the fact remains: the 2013 playoffs have been incredible. Besides the Isles coming close to upsetting the Penguins, there have been a lot of other great series, including the Finals thus far, and people are noticing.

The ratings in the coveted 18-49 category for Game 1 between the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins were excellent.  When I say excellent, I mean beating Gordon Ramsay excellent. Now that’s an accomplishment! This guy has about 4 different shows on at any one time. But, no one tell Gordon he was beaten, he has a bit of a temper and we wouldn’t want to upset him.

The first game of  last year’s Stanley Cup Finals between the New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings got a 1.0 Nielsen rating in the 18-49 demographic. This year? I don’t know if it was the fact that no one has to worry about  seeing Sidney Crosby pouting and diving all over the place, or the fact that this is the first Original Six matchup since 1979, but this year’s rating was a 2.5. Overall the game was seen by 6.4 million people. Masterchef was seen by 6.2 million. Eat your heart out Ramsay. Just look at how disappointed he looks.

So, is there something to this? Maybe so, because it’s not just the Finals that are drawing ratings.

The conference finals games lured an average of 2.65 million viewers over 9 games this year. Last year, in 11 games, the average was just 1.25 million people. Guess it’s not just Islanders fans who are tired of the New York Rangers. This year’s series drew the most viewers for a conference finals in 17 years, and Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals garnered the highest ratings ever for an NHL game on NBC.

This leaves me thinking three things:

  • First: People love drama. Why do you think the suspense/horror genres always do so well, be it at the movies, TV, or the amusement park? People love edge-of-their-seat excitement. What’s more exciting than a game that goes into OT, or 2, or 3?!  Even people who don’t normally watch hockey can get sucked into the OT void. It’s all about the drama. Because it’s the Cup? No. Because it’s Hockey! Because it’s Drama!
  • Secondly:  This sport is marketed very poorly in the USA. Most hockey fans are not huge fans of Gary Bettman. There are various reasons why, but he has done a lot to market the sport we love. Considering his predecessor went to prison, he’s not all that bad. But, he could do better. I love that people are into the sport during the playoffs. Believe me, seeing a full Nassau Coliseum rocking for the first time in years was incredible. The sport, as a whole though, is marketed very poorly.

Hockey is really not given huge media attention until the playoffs.

Take ESPN for example. “The Worldwide Leader In Sports” doesn’t really care that much now that they don’t have it on their air.  They’ll have a 5-minute segment with Barry Melrose (well 4 with Barry and 1 with his mullet), and then go back to basketball.

While the NBA playoffs are on ESPN and ABC. The NHL’s playoffs are on NBC Sports Network and CNBC. When do they put hockey on NBC? 3PM on a Saturday.

This weekend the Yankees played a regular season game on Fox. When? 7PM on Saturday night. Where was Game 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals shown? NBC Sports Network, at 8PM.  I’m not saying make every game a night game. What I am saying is that they need more exposure. Instead of a repeat of a canceled sitcom,  NBC could show hockey. There’s only one surefire way to expand a brand. Exposure. What was SO important that last night’s game could not be shown on NBC? Like I said, repeats. Chicago Fire, Law & Order SVU and SNL. A disgraceful job by NBC and the NHL.

Between not being able to find the game on cable TV, not having it on regular broadcast TV, and having games scheduled for 8PM, it can turn a lot of people away.

I am all for games that go 7 overtimes. But, if they started the game at 7, or even 7:30, maybe people would be more apt to tune in. Once it reaches 8PM, and an 8:20PM faceoff, people have already settled in to their TV for the evening. There is every reason to watch, but if it doesn’t come up on basic cable when people are flipping channels, the casual fan is likely to skip over it.

  • Thirdly: Maybe these guys are playing better this year. Maybe they are more rested, less banged up, less worn out. 82 games is a long season. It’s 6 months of skating, body checking, practicing, and working out basically on a daily basis. With the condensed nature of this season’s schedule, things had a little less time to go wrong. Sure there were still injuries and teams were still banged up. Heck, the Ottawa Senators had 14 rookies play this year, and managing them made Paul MacLean the Jack Adams trophy winner. It’s going to happen no matter what. But, maybe, just maybe, the legs were a little fresher, the minds a little more focused and the shots a little harder knowing how important every game was this year.

There are downsides to a condensed schedule, too. As my colleague Rich Diaz astutely pointed out before the season began, it’s not all fun and games for the players. While they may be less worn out by season’s end, conditioning was going to be  a big concern from the start. Were these guys going to be ready to play 48 games in a shorter period of time? There was still a huge chance of injury to big players. Rich stated that the league’s stars may try to take on too much, overcompensate, and get hurt in the process.

And what happened this year? Exactly that. The Ottawa Senators pretty much lost every star player they had due to injury, yet still made the playoffs. So, although the 48 games were fun to watch as a fan, because of the condensed schedule, for players it really was like playing with fire.

Will we ever go less than 82 games? Doubtful. But, at some point hockey and 90 degree weather are going to have to stop coinciding.

We saw baseball in November, we may one day see hockey in July. Patriotic pucks for all!