PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. - It took more than a year for NHL governors to finally vote through a new schedule format and already there's talk of something different from what was adopted for next season.
The NHL is returning to the pre-lockout format for next season, six games against other divisional opponents (24 in total), 40 against the rest of the conference and 18 versus the other conference. That means 15 games against every single team in the other conference and three wild-card games. The three Western Canadian teams will play a home-and-home with the three Eastern Canadian teams for their wild-card games.
But a model that's already gaining steam possibly in time for the 2009-10 season is the 84-game concept put forward by the Detroit Red Wings. It features 30 games against teams from the other conference - a home-and-home. It's a proposal that has also caught the eye of new NHL Players' Association executive director Paul Kelly.
"It was my proposal," said Jimmy Devellano, the Wings' senior vice-president. "I realized I couldn't get two thirds (majority) for my proposal now but having listened to Paul Kelly yesterday, I can see the players are for it. They'd like to go into every rink at least once. It doesn't appear on the surface that it'll be a hard sell with the union. The players want it. They're our performers, our actors and we should listen to them. And the fans want it. Probably after next year we'll go back with the 84-game schedule with a reduction in pre-season games from nine to, say, six."
Kelly addressed the owners on Thursday night and told them he supported the 84-game concept.
"I told the owners that from talking to players on the (11) teams I've visited, they wanted change," said Kelly. "Frankly they wanted to play the teams in the other conference home and away, as opposed to just once. The players I've talked to would appear to favour increasing the size of the schedule from 82 to 84 games to accomodate this so long as you could limit the number of pre-season games. Right now, you can play up to nine. If the owners would be willing to reduce that to five, the players would agree to 84 games ...
"The players are tired of seeing the same guys week after week and the believe the fans in their buildings want to see the star players from other teams and they'd like to visit other cities. The players out West would like to go and play East-coast teams."
Wings vice-president Steve Yzerman hopes the 84-game format will one day see the light of day.
"In order to play each team in the East home and away we're going to have to have more games. I think that's the only way to do it," said Yzerman. "The schedule we're going to go forward with in the near term at least is a step in the right direction. And we hope to at some point to be able to play every team in the East twice. That will happen in time, but the timing of it now, it just wasn't ready to be done. It's something that we can look to try and build more support for."
He's got support from Edmonton Oilers governor Cal Nichols, who accepted next season's format as a happy medium for now.
"It's probably an interim step. It's a democracy," said Nichols. "We're part of the same business - we have to figure out how to co-exist. As far as our teams wanting more exposure to Eastern teams, and Eastern teams not wanting to travel, it's probably more of a saw-off."