An Open Letter to Gary Bettman: Keep the NHL's Expanded Divisional Play
As we sit today, nestled excitedly between two games in the battle of Ontario, I felt compelled to reach out to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and make this quick plea in the strongest terms possible.
Don't go back to your traditional schedule.
Let me clear. I'm not pushing for a 56 game schedule. I'm not demanding the retention of an all-Canadian division. No, I'm talking about the expanded intra-division play you've implemented for this season and right on into the playoffs (no wild cards). For example, in the realigned, all-Canadian North Division, the Sens will play every team either nine or ten times. They'll also have a number of two or three game MLB-style visits to various divisional cities.
This format needs to be permanent.
Usually, Gary, your teams play just 4-5 games per season against division rivals. So, chances are, instead of having - for example - your fans getting amped up for the fun of a divisional revenge match tonight in Ottawa, they're usually trying to fake interest that the Minnesota Wild are in town tonight. Oh, what's that? The Sens and Leafs played last night and things got feisty at the end? Meh. They'll play again in a few months. I mean, come on now. Putting rivalries into hibernation makes no sense.
Sports are fuelled by emotion. If the opponent is a stranger, it adds nothing to the experience. Sure, fans hope their favourite team wins, but a strange, bland opponent means nothing. But, if you keep this season's expanded intra-division play; if you get a steady dose of that same opponent, and get to intimately know and dislike them, then that doubles the emotions of the fans.
Suddenly, the opponent's failure also matters.
I know, Gary. I get it. I know you want every team to visit every NHL rink every season. There's merit in that. But losing that is a price you should be willing to pay to expand intra-division play. But don't take my word for it. Watch the games this season. Listen to the fans. Get a tangible sense of the emotion and excitement your customers are showing for the games and compare it to the recent past. And please don't dismiss it because we're in exceptional times. Your games will be far more entertaining and the playoffs will be fierce.
This is your path to excellence. Sorry, let me put that in a way that you care about. This is your path to better TV ratings, better (post-COVID) ticket sales and more money.