So for the time being, the league will stick with the unbalanced schedule: lots of divisional games and only occasional visits from non-conference opponents. Edmonton Oilers chairman Cal Nichols wore his heart on his sleeve, saying the league had fumbled the ball.
“The politics seem to always enter into it,” a frustrated Nichols said after the board of governors meeting. “I think we should be more concerned about the future of the game than specific interests or, ‘It’s going to cost me a few more thousand dollars to travel a few extra miles.’ This shouldn’t be about that. It’s about the game.”
Nichols also believes commissioner Gary Bettman should have shown more leadership on the matter.
“I wish he would have,” said Nichols.
Results of the vote were not made public but five of the six Canadian teams are believed to have opted for change Tuesday with the exception of Montreal.
A two-thirds vote was needed to alter the schedule. It just missed.
“I’m very comfortable with the decision that was taken,” said Canadiens president Pierre Boivin. “Let’s finish the cycle and take the time to carefully think about a solution.”
Some fans around the league have become disenchanted with the current format featuring eight games against each divisional opponents – which some think is too many – and only 10 games against non-conference opponents (five on the road), which many believe aren’t enough.
“That’s been reflected in some of the fan surveys and feedback,” said Toronto Maple Leafs GM John Ferguson.
For example, Sidney Crosby has yet to play an NHL game in Edmonton, Calgary or Vancouver under the scheduling format adopted after the lockout. He will finally get there next year.
“What’s interesting to me is that in the early ’80s, when we had the two home-and-away against each and every team in the 21-team league, everybody got Gretzky twice and that was OK,” said Nichols. “Now the shoe is on the other foot and it’s like it doesn’t matter.”
The three-year cycle that the current schedule is on also means the Oilers, Flames and Canucks will not play a single game against Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa next season.
“I think the Canadian hockey fans would sooner see us play the other Canadian teams than any U.S. teams,” Nichols said.
“It’s something that we were looking for, there’s no denying that,” Ferguson said of the proposed change. “We firmly support the better competitive balance and having the opportunity to seeing especially the Canadian teams and a little more variety for our fans. It didn’t come through but we’ll continue to work on that front. . . .
“We were supportive of any of the changed formats.”
But Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier rejected the notion that the NHL is out of touch with what the fan base wants.
“In fact I would argue that the league is very much in touch,” he said. “I come at it from a Buffalo perspective, and for Western New Yorkers and the Buffalo Sabres it works well.”
There was confusion after the meeting on which exact proposal fell one vote short of the two thirds majority needed. One proposal got 19 votes out of 30 and the other 18.
The two proposals were:
-Back to the pre-lockout schedule format of six games against each divisional opponent and 18 against non-conference teams;
-Drop one to seven games against each divisional opponent and go to 14 against non-conference teams.
Either way, both proposals came very close.
In general, most Eastern Conference teams are happy with the status quo while Western Conference teams have pushed for change – mostly because of Crosby and fellow young star Alexander Ovechkin.
Bettman, who said he personally supported the seven-game divisional proposal, also feels comfortable with the decision to finish out the three-year cycle.
“Whether or not we need a change after that, we have ample time to consider it,” said the commissioner.
“There’s no doubt there’s pockets that are disappointed in (the unbalanced schedule) and I think that has to be considered,” said Minnesota Wild GM Doug Risebrough. “As the custodians of the game you want to make sure you’re considering that but you’re also considering it on a big scale and not just a reaction.
“That’s why I think at the end of this three-year cycle there will be a very healthy debate and it’ll get people to clarify what their objectives are.
“And obviously I think the leadership of the league will have to step in and say, ‘Here’s what we have to do for the good of the game.’ Because that’s what the fans want.”
New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello thinks the unbalanced schedule has become an issue because of the concentration of the divisional games, not the actual number. Divisional teams sometimes face each other three or four times in a matter of weeks instead of those eight games being spread out over the whole regular season.
If the divisional games were better spaced throughout the year, “I don’t believe any of this rhetoric would have happened,” Lamoriello said.
As for the belief that Crosby and Ovechkin should be playing in every NHL rink, Rutherford said it’s not that simple.
“You change it to see the Crosbys and the Ovechkins but some teams may not want to see us,” said the Carolina GM. “Teams in Western Canada may get teams they won’t sell out for. So I think you have to be careful how you look at that. The fact of the matter is people will be excited about the game in their markets if their team is doing well. I don’t think it’s about the schedule.”
The board of governors didn’t spend all three hours on the scheduling, just most of it. The governors also discussed the video review process and agreed that it might be a good idea to add a TV monitor in the penalty box next season so that referees can see replays.
There will also be upgrades in rinks around the NHL to add more cameras and high-definition cameras to give more angles for goal reviews.
Bettman also updated owners on the latest with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who continue to try and strike a deal with local government officials to build a new arena and keep the NHL club there.
But the most passionate part of the meeting was on the schedule, a debate that will pick up again next season.
When asked what exactly Bettman could have done, Nichols responded: “I think it’s encouraging those to do the right things for the game.”
“He didn’t share that view with me,” Bettman responded at his state-of-the-union news conference. “The fact is there wasn’t enough support from the clubs to make a change which leads me to conclude that because we’re in the middle of a three-year rotation, a number of clubs decided it was only fair and appropriate to conclude it.
“Sometimes people lose sight of the fact that, while some of you think I throw lightning bolts, the fact is I do report to a board. And the board on certain things has the final say.”