Change is the one constant in professional sports – from the product on the field to the scheduling of the games themselves and everything in between. In the past, who would have predicted Super Bowls in February, World Series games in November or Stanley Cup finals in mid-June? Sports fans appear to be happy with this timing, as interest in all of the championship finals is at an all-time high.
Each sport is now re-examining its approach to the start of the season. Traditionally, baseball, football and hockey have held lengthy training camps with numerous pre-season games, but in recent years, each sport has questioned this approach. Athletes condition their bodies year-round and report to training camps in close-to-peak form. A lengthy training camp conditioning regime may not be necessary any longer. Each league must now consider the wisdom of moving more quickly into the regular season, especially because pre-season games don’t generate the same revenue as regular season games. This presents hockey with some interesting challenges.
NHL training camps currently open about one week later than they used to. However, a good deal of informed opinion within the NHL claims the league should follow the NBA’s route and opt for a later start to the regular season. Why compete with the baseball playoffs throughout the month of October? With no need for extended training camps anymore, this school of thought could lead to even later camp openings.
But there are other hockey people who are now expressing a contrary point of view. They argue the start of the regular season should be even earlier than it is now. Give each club a few days of training camp and a limited number of pre-season games and they will be ready for regular season action. They claim hockey should actually be an easier sell to the public in early autumn than in June.
Proponents of an earlier start concede the fact competition in autumn comes from both baseball and football. In June, the baseball season is still in its first half and the only other competition comes from the NBA playoffs. However, if the Stanley Cup final took place in May, the competition from baseball would be less and the basketball playoffs would be in an earlier stage. Hockey would have an easier time dominating the media limelight during the time its most important games are being played.
Recent talk about expanding the playoffs makes it even more crucial to consider starting the regular season earlier. Given the outstanding entertainment level of last season's playoffs, who can blame the NHL for wanting to increase the number of post-season games?
Several other factors will encourage an earlier start to the season. The NHL has shown a commendable concern in recent years for various types of injuries. Common sense would dictate that if players are tired, they are more vulnerable to injury. Expanding the number of days available to complete the regular season would reduce the fatigue burden on players.
Another consideration can be referred to as the "European factor." The NHL, quite understandably, has been attempting to enhance its global presence in the game. More and more teams are venturing to Europe to play pre-season and regular season games. This is a trend that is sure to continue and likely to expand. The travel required is substantial, so more days for the regular season would reduce this burden as well.
The argument about the start of the regular season isn’t totally one-sided. The competition for the entertainment dollar in autumn is fierce. NHL crowds in October are typically the lowest of the season. In many parts of the United States, there is considerable competition from college and even high school football until well into November. Comparable competition simply doesn’t exist in May or June.
The NHL is a business trying to survive and prosper in difficult financial times. Strategy must make sense on a business basis. The format for scheduling is an integral part of this process.
Tom Thompson worked as head scout for the Minnesota Wild from 1999-2001 and was promoted to assistant GM in 2002, a post he held until 2010. He has also worked as a scout for the Calgary Flames, where he earned a Stanley Cup ring in 1989. He currently works as a scout for the New York Rangers. He will be writing his Insider Column regularly for THN.com throughout this season.