By Joe McLaughlin /Black Press
I’m glad to see the National Hockey League returning this weekend and the shortened schedule doesn’t bother me one bit.
This season will be 48 games per team, followed by four playoff series that typically add about 20 more games for the two finalists.
I wish a full regular season was closer to that range than the ridiculous 82-game standard. Over the years, the NHL season has become too long and tedious. As teams were added through league expansion, the number of games each team played rose. It shouldn’t take 82 games to determine which half deserves to qualify for the championship tournament.
Nowadays, 16 of 30 NHL teams make the playoffs. In Major League Baseball, only eight of the 30 teams generally advance. This year, the entire baseball playoff round was completed in 24 days, as San Francisco swept Detroit in a fourgame final.
There’s no question that baseball players can compete more often than hockey players, because the game demands less physical exertion for everyone except for the starting pitchers. Football players, by comparison, play far fewer games — about 20 from the regular season kickoff through the Super Bowl for the two finalists. The National Football League completes its season in 22 weeks from start to finish. No weak or lax teams make the NFL playoffs — 12 of 32. That’s 37 per cent, versus 53 per cent in the NHL.
Last year, the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup in mid-June, 35 weeks after opening night. The entire NHL season — which can entail more than 100 games from training camp through the Stanley Cup final — is not in the best interests of the players or the fans.
In this overextended marathon, players’ bodies break down because of constant strain in a high-speed contact game. Ticket-buying fans, paying premium prices, are shortchanged for games where players are too worn out to consistently give their best effort. Fans watching on TV routinely endure such tedious snooze fests.
Don’t expect the NHL season to be shortened anytime soon, however. It’s not designed for the players or ticket-buying fans. It’s designed for team owners, television networks and corporate sponsors who drive the game. From their perspective, the more games, the better. They don’t have to sweat or bleed. More games mean more gate revenue, more television money, more eyeballs watching beer and truck commercials.
In olden times, when I grew up, there were only six teams in the National Hockey League. When my boyhood hero Bobby Hull and the Chicago Blackhawks won the 1961 championship, the regular season was 70 games, the playoffs were two series and the Stanley Cup was presented on April 16. In 1967, the last year the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup, the regular season was 70 games and the season was finished on May 2. The year before, the Montreal Canadiens won the Cup on April 29.
In those days, of course, the owners were just millionaires instead of billionaires and the players were neither. Most players worked summer jobs, partly to keep in physical shape, but mostly to supplement their hockey incomes.
These days, professional hockey is a 12-month sport. If the players don’t train constantly, they can’t compete against younger guys who desperately want their jobs, and the big salaries that go with them.
But athletes’ lives would be better if they were not forced to play such torturously long regular seasons. All the players would likely earn less per season, but careers of the most skilled would likely be longer. For fans, the game would improve, because players would not be so exhausted. They play too many games in too short a time frame, coupled with constant travel to all four quarters of North America.
Keen observers may note that the Los Angeles Kings started their championship season in Sweden, captured the final playoff spot on the last weekend of the 2011-12 season, and still went on to win the Stanley Cup. Very true.
It’s equally true that they played some lousy hockey and coasted through games knowing they didn’t have to give their best effort every game to qualify for the playoffs. That shouldn’t be allowed to happen to satisfy corporate ownership greed.
Fewer regular-season games would mean more intensity, better competition and higher value for fans who love the game. It probably won’t happen, but it could, just like some day in the distant future, the Maple Leafs could win the Stanley Cup again.
Joe McLaughlin is the retired former managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.