Shannon: NHL should consider shortening season

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Lockout? What lockout?

The playoff races, the talk of multiple outdoor games and the renewed regional rivalries have made us all but forget the 100-plus days of pain that was inflicted on the NHL and its players and fans last September.

Then, it dawned on me that the season is quickly coming to an end. And while I might not like the 48-game scenario, I certainly don’t miss the 82-game season either.

Don’t get me wrong, all these games jammed into 100 days are not fair to the teams, players, officials or fans. Back-to-back games and three games in four nights are not conducive to great hockey. The excess of injuries inflicted on the players is not anything we want to see again, that’s for sure. But there should be a bit of a learning curve on this season and these great playoff races. The NHL should be looking at this season and how compressed the standings are with this sample size and wondering if they can make it even better.

Yes, 48 games might be too short, but maybe 82 games is too long. This might be a great opportunity for the powers that be to do something about it. For example, would it not be in everyone’s best interest to shorten the regular season to a reasonable number, like 72 or 76 games? And simultaneously, with the extra week at the end of the regular season, use that time to add a play-in round of four teams, bumping the number of playoff teams to 20?

And before you say, that’s too many teams in the post-season, understand that from 1967, the NHL has gone from eight of 12 to eight of 14, then in 1979, actually had 16 of 21 teams make the playoffs. The historic ratio of two-thirds (four of the Original 6 for so long) has some credence for all hockey fans. Twenty of 30 just makes sense.

Owners have always pushed the envelope in adding as many games to the regular season as they feel the market can bear, and their bankers demand. But in a new partnership with the players, and increased revenue sharing, as long as most of those games can still be played (and revenue distributed), what’s the difference?

In most Canadian cities — and the hardcore cities of Philadelphia, Boston, New York and Pittsburgh — the excitement of 41 regular season games will always pay off. In cities that are in full competition with other sports at the college and professional level, it allows for a more rational and reasonable approach to fans who don’t necessarily have the disposable income for a larger subscriber fee. Growing the playoffs makes great sense because in March, April, May and June is when hockey fans in both countries are truly focused on the game. No distraction from the National Football League or Major League Baseball, which is just launching a new season at that time of year.

Analytics will always demonstrate that the longer the season, the greater disparity between great, good, mediocre and bad teams. Shortening the season would allow more teams, and their fans, to feel involved in the game. Expanding the pool of playoff teams would do exactly the same thing. And the time to do it, quite frankly, is when realignment becomes a reality next October.

What a shortened season also allows for:

1) Better care for the players, who are on the edge of exhaustion in an 82-game schedule.

2) Better promotion and marketing for the major events for the NHL (Outdoor games, Trade Deadline Day, Hockey Hall of Fame Induction, Hockey Day in Canada, Hockey Day in America, etc …) where the focus should be solely on a particular event and the newly-contracted, longer, holiday break in December.

3) It also might allow for a natural break, every fourth year, for the World Cup of Hockey, which everyone seems to desire but can’t get out of each other’s way to organize.

As well, using the shortened regular season and expanded playoffs as a base, more and more it appears that the long-term success of the NHL is being geared to the “big event.” A long regular season, where those events can’t be isolated, can’t be celebrated, defeats the purpose of creating such events. And while I personally think that six outdoor games might be too much, if they don’t get the proper attention from everyone involved (teams, media, players and fans) their value will be diminished as well.

There is a lot to digest here, I know. And the NHL is starting to create a business plan that reflects some aggressive thinking. And while not everyone agrees with the plan, the good news is, there is a plan! Since Jan. 19, we’ve learned that a shortened season makes each and every game special. Now, combine that with the fact the Stanley Cup playoffs are always special. That’s why a 72-game season with 20 teams in the playoffs just makes sense. Add the desire to build on “pillar” events, like the Winter Classic, that will grow the fan base of the NHL beyond the traditional hardcore fan in a schedule that allows the whole hockey world to watch, and you have a recipe for long-term growth and success.

And just to think, much of it came from an all-too-short season. Because, after all, it’s not what happens to you that’s important; it’s what you do about it that counts.

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