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Possible expansion and unbalanced schedule on the table at NHL owners meeting

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

Few issues have ignited as much passionate debate among owners in recent years as the schedule, which since the lockout has featured eight games versus each divisional opponent - too many according to some - and only 10 games (five on the road) against non-conference opponents.

The Edmonton Oilers will once again be leading the charge for change.

"We cannot walk away from the debate, it's critically important to our customers," Oilers president and CEO Pat LaForge told The Canadian Press on Monday. "We think it's the same for all Western teams. We think we're at a huge disadvantage the way the schedule is right now."

Most of the Eastern Conference teams resisted change last season, satisfied with the lighter travel schedule the current format affords. LaForge argues that's a key factor in some free agents signing in the East.

"The Eastern Conference has had a great advantage that's borne out in collecting free agents as well as keeping them," said LaForge. "Just playing in their own time zone almost every night is a great advantage for them."

NHL owners fell one vote short of changing the schedule at a meeting last January in Dallas, an emotional day which featured Oilers chairman Cal Nichols calling out commissioner Gary Bettman for a lack of leadership for not pushing for change.

But the teams resisting change last season felt the way to go was to finish off the three-year cycle the league set out with the unbalanced schedule.

"When we came out of the work stoppage, everybody was raving about what a great idea it was. It was a three-year cycle," said Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford. "And because of that, we felt very strongly that you should complete the three-year cycle.

"But now that we've got to that point, we're certainly open to changing it."

There won't actually be a vote on the matter Tuesday, that will probably come at the board of governors meeting in December. But the discussion picks up again Tuesday and the Hurricanes will be among the teams who are now ready for change after voting for the status quo last season.

"I don't think it benefits all franchises but if you look at the overall league - I think it makes sense," said Rutherford. "And the other part for me, what I hear when I really look into this, is the players don't want to play those teams as many times. And those are the guys everyone pays to watch so it's important to listen to them."

Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby will finally play an NHL game in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver this season, his third year in the league. This season the unbalanced schedule also has the Oilers, Flames and Canucks not playing a single regular-season game against Montreal, Toronto or Ottawa.

"We think that is just unacceptable for Canadian franchises," said LaForge.

The betting money is that the schedule will definitely change before next season, with more games against non-conference opponents.

Meanwhile, the owners will also hear from the league on possible expansion Tuesday, with Las Vegas, Kansas City, Seattle and Winnipeg among the cities on the radar.

LaForge said he isn't aware an expansion plan being in the works, but didn't hide his support for one of the cities.

"As it relates to Winnipeg, it's one of the great hockey markets in North America," said LaForge. "The next proposal - if there ever is one - for expansion, it has to be a great hockey market. And Winnipeg passes the great hockey market test."

Also on the agenda Tuesday:

-The league will give owners a "state of the business" presentation and provide an analysis on the contract and salary trends heading into the third year of the collective bargaining agreement.

-Updates on the proposed sale of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Nashville Predators.

-A chat about NHL on-ice officials in lieu of the Tim Donaghy scandal in the NBA, reminding owners of the safeguards in place to avoid a similar situation.

-Colin Campbell, the NHL's director of hockey operations, will also address the board and take questions from owners.



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