Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

In June, the hot topic is not the Stanley Cup final

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The May long weekend has come and gone, the Memorial Cup has been awarded and no Canadian team has been part of the Stanley Cup playoffs for more than a month.

Hockey season must surely be over.

But wait -- hockey season is not over, although it looks like it could end tonight in Los Angeles. If New Jersey pulls off a miracle, however, the procession to greatness (or at least having your name etched on the revered cup for future generations to see) could drag on until June 13.

Most training camps for NHL teams opened on Sept. 12 or 13, and the 82-game regular season started on Oct. 6, so the season for these players and their fans has become a nine-month ultra-marathon.

Outside of New Jersey Devils fans and Los Angeles Kings supporters, how much could the rest of us possibly care?

Not for the first time, summer, hockey and the vast (but mostly disinterested) American television audience have embarked on an uneasy but always hopeful relationship.

It seems futile, since even Canadian fans are now golfing, gardening, biking... anything but hunkering down in front of televised hockey games.

Year after year, desperately long spring after desperately long spring, the National Hockey League enters into this delusional march to a champion.

The league stretches out the playoff schedule (never mind the ridiculously long regular season), desperately positioning games on days and time slots it believes will attract the American viewing audience.

This "final" series could yet take 15 days to play, and includes two Saturdays, by design (at least there are no games this round on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, when all but the most devoted are outside doing anything but watching hockey).

The final series has offered great hockey, but the sun is shining, the trees are finally in full leaf and summer beckons.

So why does the National Hockey League persist in this annual folly, seeking to crown a champion that will largely be ignored except in the markets where they play?

Obviously, more fans in arena seats means more revenue.

And the more games, regular season and playoffs (when prices are significantly inflated), the more income.

The same formula works for television (and the uber fan could find any and every NHL game on TV if he or she wished) and the revenue pot tied to its advertising.

But is there a reasonable end point to this profit-driven, fan-draining formula?

The NHL's collective-bargaining agreement with players expires on Sept. 15. At that point, all bets are off.

And, presumably, all potential improvements to the game are on the table. (For example, the less money players make, the fewer games owners will need to pay their bills.)

After the Second World War, the league expanded to a 50-game schedule (from 48) and the playoffs ended in early April.

By 1950, the teams were playing 70 games a year (among six teams, but with no TV revenue), and playoffs were still over by mid-April. The number of games didn't change again until 1967-1968 (74 games among a newly doubled group of 12 teams). By 1976, 18 teams were playing 80 games each and playoffs had stretched into mid to late May.

We've since seen the schedule expand to 82 games among 30 teams and modern-era Stanley Cup finals have concluded as late as June 24.

It's the worst kind of economic folly: financial decisions are made in spite of the consumer.

And it has taken much of the joy out of what was once a grand spring spectacle.

Let the game roll on. I'm going outside.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 6, 2012 A11

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