Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Games With Meaning

Once again you and I sit here as winter turns to spring looking ahead to a host of meaningful Canadiens games. Tonight is the first. The Buffalo Sabres are grappling for the playoffs (if you can call 6-6-4 over 14 grappling) and the Habs need more points to achieve any peace of mind.

But it’s not so for everyone.

Down the road in Ottawa, for example, games with meaning expired in January. That’s when they entered the puzzling realm where fans start to accept and even encourage the loss. I recently attended an Ottawa game and will be attending the Habs game in Kanata as well. Watching the post-trade deadline Senators face the Bruins was interesting from an academic point of view, but I can assure you that not many of those fans seem to revel in the clean back pass like I do. By the time the Habs play the Sens in April, it may be that the result means less to both teams. It begs the question: why are people paying the same amount to watch this game as the early season run-ins with everything still on the line.

The teams at the bottom struggle to bring in fans (especially where fans were already scarce) as cheering for the loss is just as easily done without the $100 price tag. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad if the teams at the top weren’t also playing meaningless games as the season runs down.

Vancouver and Philadelphia are the only two teams that have formally clinched their playoff berths. But there are also several teams that have a 100% chance of making the playoffs if you round up the decimals (Washington has escaped all scenarios in which they could miss thanks to head-to-head games of those chasing).

Few games with meaning

So ten teams with less than 1% chance of making it and 9 teams with a less than 1% chance of missing. With playoffs being the only pressing reason to win a game that suggests that most teams don’t have very much left to play for.

In my opinion, this part of the season is just another thing that is fundamentally wrong with the NHL. I think there’s a problem at the top and at the bottom of the pile.

League champions

To start with, the league’s attitude to the President’s trophy only fuels the fans disdain. 82 games is a long and arduous season for players and fans when the single reward for most teams is berth in the playoffs. Add to that the possibility that a first round loss will completely eclipse any notion of accomplishment. Imagine a first round sweep.

There aren’t many good reasons as to why the league couldn’t do more to elevate the league champion. I am not suggesting that anything like the right to play for the Cup be reinstated as it was in the beginning. There could, however, be ways to honour the winners. Presenting the trophy could be a start. Other possibilities could include making the champs participants in the outdoor game, or the all-star game (and making a trophy for the victors of that as yet meaningless contest). Some sort of hockey champion’s league to start the season (as opposed to random selection for European involvement) might also create interest in hockey that way.

A fan of North American sports will point out that not recognizing accomplishment for the regular season is the norm for all sports. Of course, in doing so, said fan would have to ignore the reality that sport takes place outside of North America too and those leagues routinely find ways to honour two achievements and make them meaningful to fans. They would also be condoning the 162-game debacle that leads to months of meaningless baseball games every year.

Why must we cling to a system that was made for 6 teams, when we can clearly see the problem that a single honour to go around for 30 teams is creating disinterest? Why must the NHL copy the NFL when the difference between 16 games and 82 games is so clear?

Lottery winners

The same could be said for the bottom. As I was discussing the Senators last night with my father-in-law, I needed to explain why the teams missing the playoffs must now attempt to lose as many games as possible. We both agreed this gave fans a very good reason for their apathy.

Of course, this doesn’t need to be the way forward either.

The top pick to bottom team system is in place to allow recycling of teams from top to bottom. It works in that regard. But in 10 years when Crosby and Malkin are on their last legs, will we again be staring down the threat of one of the NHL’s most legitimate markets losing its team? The more Pittsburgh try to win now, the more likely it seems we will.

And what for? So that teams from far less viable markets can take a turn at the top?

The solution might need to be creative, but there could certainly be a way to make missing the playoffs on a tie-break (like Florida has done a couple of times recently) worth more than trading away all NHL talent in March like that team did this year. It’s not every day that the Toronto Maple Leafs stumble on viable solutions to problems, but they may be onto something with their first round swap – winning to prevent a rival’s reinforcement seems to entertain.

At the end of the day, fans cheer for the goal, the save, the win. Not many are so forward-looking to be cheering for the increased odds of nabbing Couturier. Certainly not when they’ve paid to watch a hockey game. As a fan willing to pay for a late season game this year, but beginning to question, I can speak to this.

Want to know why hockey is sucking air in Florida and Atlanta. Want to know why Colorado failed before and could just as easily lose interest again? Want to know why Columbus is no longer selling out? Look no further than meaningful games. In addition to showing some iota of concern for player safety, I think this sham leadership has to address this situation where meaningless games make up 15% of the schedule.

So as Toronto face Minnesota to decide Boston’s draft position, enjoy the game tonight.

(Note: Of course I never expect a league run by the current team – who can’t even muster enough interest to deal with serious injury – to do anything. It’s still something I think needs to be addressed by the next competent guy they get in a leadership position)


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