It was the great poet T.S. Eliot who wrote that "April is the cruelest month." With all due respect to Eliot, it's pretty clear he never watched NHL hockey in the month of March. Thank the hockey gods that the end is near.
March is hockey's answer to Major League Baseball's dog days of August. In baseball, players wilt in the literal heat as fans get ready for the metaphorical heat of the pennant chase's home stretch. In hockey, by the time the season hits the 70-game mark, fans are already salivating at the prospect of watching the kind of hockey that matters most: playoff hockey.
By the time you hit March 1, we already have a pretty good idea of the identity of the league's elite teams. Which also means, for the most part, that we spend the entire month of March watching the bottom of the standings wondering which fundamentally -- and most likely fatally -- flawed teams will outlast each other to qualify for the last 2 spots in the playoffs and the opportunity to be slaughtered at the hands of a top seed.
Forgive me if I want to hit the snooze bar and just wake up around the third week in April.
So what's the solution? In a perfect world, I'd simply lop 10 games off the regular season schedule and get started with the playoffs about three weeks early, turning March into an actual stretch run. Here's a quick list of the pros and cons of ending the season 10 games early:
- We get to watch the hockey that matters most, playoff hockey, that much earlier;
- With fewer games, players will be less susceptible to injury and be that much fresher for the playoffs;
- The Stanley Cup will be awarded before the mercury regularly rises above 90 degrees;
- Players will get more time off to rest and recover before the start of the following season;
- Seasons where players score 50 goals or 100 points will be that much more impressive;
- We'd have to move up the trade deadline. How about January 1? That way, a national television audience in the USA and Canada would get live updates on the latest trade in the middle of the NHL Winter Classic;
- And another bonus item we'll get to later ...
- Ten fewer games means 10 fewer revenue opportunities for players and ownership, which is a problem;
- Starting the playoffs in March means going head to head with March Madness in America, and we all know that when hockey has to compete with other sports in the states, attendance and television ratings suffer, which means lower revenue.
Now let's get to the real world problem: money, and lots of it. Like it or not, a 36-game season ticket package isn't going to be as expensive as a 41-game package. In a league where more than a few teams are living close to the financial line, lopping five games worth of gate receipts plus parking and concessions from the bottom line is cash few teams can afford to live without. That means it's time for compromise.
A couple of weeks back, Greg Wyshynski asked me what I thought about expanding the playoffs. I said that the NHL playoffs are fine the way they are now, and that they didn't need to be changed, though financial pressure would probably dictate that the postseason tournament would eventually be expanded.
That being said, I'd be happy to concede an expansion of the playoffs if we could get the show started sooner. In fact, I think I'd rather watch four teams (seeds seven through 10 in each conference) battle it out in best of three or five mini-series like we had back in the 1970s and 80s. And we all know that teams can afford to charge more for everything come playoff time.
In the end, it's all probably wasted breath. Then again, there is a bonus today. March only has one day left to go.
Every Monday morning The Ice Sheet will take a close look at everything that's happened in the NHL since Friday night at 5:00 PM -- or if need be, anything else the author wants to bleat about. To read them all, click here.