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NHL owners can't agree on changes to schedule but the issue still isn't dead

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

"I don't think we've heard the last of it," said Toronto Maple Leafs GM John Ferguson. "There was a great deal of discussion, and while the required votes didn't land on any one particular schedule matrix, the prevailing sentiment was that change was good and sought. "What exactly that means still remains to be determined but it will be continually discussed. I would not be surprised if something happened."

While the prevailing sentiment was that next season will likely be unchanged, Ferguson disputed that.

"I would think next year is still on the radar," he said.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will form a special committee to further examine the issue.

More talk on the schedule is expected at the next board of governors' meeting in Dallas next month during all-star week.

"While there is some sentiment by a number of clubs that maybe a change would be good, when you sort through that on balance not enough people believe that a change from what we have would be better than what we have," Bettman said after two days of meetings wrapped up.

The NHL is in the second season of its unbalanced schedule, which was introduced after the lockout ended.

Each club plays eight games against divisional rivals (32 in total), four against the 10 non-division clubs in its conference (40 in total) and only 10 games against teams from the other conference - five at home and five on the road.

That means 10 clubs in the Western Conference don't get to see the likes of Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin, which has angered some fans.

"It seems to have reached a crescendo in the last year because of two young players," Anaheim Ducks GM Brian Burke said of the scheduling debate. "Everybody says, 'we want to see Crosby and we want to see Ovechkin.' I got news for you, historically in all my years running teams there's only been a couple of players where fans would call and say, 'is this guy playing?"'

When Burke was an assistant GM in Vancouver, he recalls having people call the switchboard ahead of a game to see if Mario Lemieux's bad back would keep him from playing against the Canucks.

"People pay to watch teams," said Burke. "I think divisional rivalries are important. The fact that we have an aberration with two exciting young players right now, I'm not going to vote to change the schedule dramatically because we have two good players.

"They could get traded tomorrow. Then what do you do? It's got to have more sense to it than that."

Two GMs requesting anonymity said the schedule matrix that got the most support was the one that featured six divisional games, 18 games against the other conference, and the same four games against the rest of your conference.

"There was no consensus in there but we would like to change," said Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland. "Obviously we would like to play more games in the East, being in an eastern time zone.

"There's board of governors meetings in the middle of January in Dallas and I'm sure it will be discussed again there."

But Burke didn't think next season's schedule would change, which highlights the divisiveness of the issue.

"We spent a lot of time on it. It's not an easy issue," said Burke. "You can say that the fans want to see more non-conference opponents. But for a West Coast team, my club travels too much right now. It's not that simple to say that's something our fans want so let's just do it. . . .

"No resolution as far as changing the schedule was reached mainly because we couldn't agree on something that made more sense than what we had."

Edmonton Oilers president and CEO Pat LaForge, like all three Western Canadian clubs, had hoped for a change that would see increased play against the other conference.

"We were supporting a schedule change," he said. "Our business is really based on your own fans and every club has a different set of customers, if you will, and our fans on our website were voting for more variety."

New Jersey Devils president and GM Lou Lamoriello is fine with the unbalanced schedule but believes the current format would be better if the eight divisional games were spread out more equitably throughout the schedule.

"What created a lot of this controversy was teams saw teams five times in four weeks," said Lamoriello.

Space it out, Lamoriello figures.

"Think about it, if you open the season with back-to-back games of the rivalries and then you don't see them for another two months, so there's an anticipation," he said.

One idea that is now officially dead is playoff bracketing, similar to what is seen in NCAA basketball. Bettman wanted to see how owners felt about a change in the playoff format that would see teams know who they would be playing in the second round.

For example, the winner of the No. 1 vs. No. 8 series would have played the winner of the No. 4 vs. No. 5 series. The idea was the fans would have enjoyed to know who was on the other end.

But the possibility of a No. 8 team getting a No. 5 team in the second round while the No. 2 team had to face the No. 3 team didn't make sense to most people in the room Tuesday.

"There was very little support to go to bracketing," said Burke. "The feeling is that if a team has the benefit of a certain spot, from their regular-season finish, they want the benefit of playing the weakest opponent that gives them. And bracketing takes that away in the second round."

Said LaForge: "It didn't get a lot of support. People battle all year long to get seeded and the mood in the room was we just shouldn't be giving that up."

Bettman accepted the response.

"The view is that whatever benefits there may be by going to bracketed are more than off-set from a competitive standpoint of rewarding the teams from the regular season that should get the highest seeds in each round," said the commissioner.

Bettman also reviewed preliminary revenue figures with owners and as previously reported told them to expect at least five per cent growth this season, which would elevate the team-by-team salary cap from $44 million to between $46 million and $47.5 million next season.



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