Monday, April 9, 2007

Untraditional Playoff Schedule Caters to "Potential" Fans - At What Cost?

Outside of Dora the Explorer's corruptive interference, the NHL playoff schedule has managed to remain rather stable and predictable over the years (7pm, every second night). Granted, with NHL arenas being used for the NBA, regular concerts and other sporting events, it is difficult to schedule an entire seven game series to perfection. This is understandable, so the odd layover between series or back-to-backer if necessary becomes excusable. This season, however, there is hardly a series which fits the "traditional" playoff framework. Take the Ottawa-Pittsburgh series, which features multiple two-night rests, back-to-back weekend games, and start times from 1pm, 3pm, 6pm and 7pm. The afternoon weekend games are understandable, to a point. Yes this series features the best player in the NHL, in his first ever playoff. Yes, this series will be perhaps the most entertaining, aggressive, high-flying matchup of the year. If there's one series you want to showcase to potential fans, this is it. So yes, it is perfectly understandable if a network available in virtually every household in the United States and Canada (NBC) wants to broadcast this series, the NHL will do whatever it takes to make it happen. After all, they'r'e not going to branch out to potential new fans with their Versus coverage. However, is it really worth manipulating the schedule the cater to potential fans, when to everyone else involved - players, fans, broadcasters - 6pm on a Sunday doesn't exactly scream playoff time? According to the schedule, all Senators-Pittsburgh games will be broadcast nationally in both the United States and Canada. Well, if you're trying to get fans in Seattle or Whitehorse to get into the game via Sidney Crosby, is 10am on a Saturday really the best time to do it? This is, after all, the time at which 1pm East Coast games will be viewable in the Pacific Time Zone. Back-to-back games are a headache for players, to be sure, and might not provide the best product on the ice if players are drained after a particularly taxing game the night before (say, a 4-overtime game, which is entirely possible in the playoffs). Or perhaps players with nagging injuries will be forced to sit without the extra recuperation time a day's rest provides. This isn't complaining about the misfortunes of any particular team, but rather the potential problems it causes for a highly entertaining matchup aimed at enlisting new fans.

The Ottawa-Pittsburgh schedule foibles hit closest to home, but there are plenty of problems elsewhere. Take the Calgary-Detroit matchup. As with any team in the Eastern Time Zone but Western Conference, Detroit home games are bound to cause headaches for fans of the West team they match-up with. This can be minimised with 8pm starts or, at worst, 7pm. However, NHL has scheduled a 1pm weekend game, forcing Calgary fans to cheer on their team at 11am. Nothing says beer and pizza like a midmorning hockey game, does it?

Nashville-San Jose, potentially one of the most entertaining series of the entire playoffs, featuring two high-flying offenses with solid defense and four (!) of the league's best goaltenders, isn't getting guaranteed national coverage; Versus pledges to join some of their games "in progress". Unbelievable, that a series featuring the reigning MVP and Art Ross winner, and a team that battled for the President's Trophy and top seed in the West for long stretches in the season, is relegated to "maybe you'll get to watch this" status.

For five out of their possible seven games, the three New York area teams (NYR, NYI and NJ) will be playing on the same night... at the same time. There is no possible explanation or excuse for how ridiculous this scheduling is.

No one expects the NHL to get playoff scheduling exactly right in each and every case. These odd schedules and start times take players and fans out of the playoff state of mind. In what universe is this good for the game?