PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. - The NHL finally voted to change the format for the schedule Thursday night, ending a year-long saga that featured much debate among owners.
And in the end they returned to the pre-lockout schedule, which features six games against each divisional opponent instead of the current eight and also guarantees at least one game every year against all the other conference teams. The vote easily got the necessary two thirds majority from owners to pass - the votes going 26 to 4.
The 82-game schedule next season will feature 24 divisional games, 40 against the rest of the conference and 18 versus the other conference - 15 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.
It's believed Anaheim, Boston, New Jersey and the New York Islanders were the only votes against.
"This was an attempt to be responsive to the fans," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said after the meeting. "And we did it notwithstanding that this is likely to be the third year in a row with record attendance and the fact that divisional games are better attended than any others we did want to be responsive to the fans."
Also Thursday night:
-The US$193-million sale of the Nashville Predators from Craig Leipold to a local group lead by David Freeman was approved by the board.
"I believe this new ownership group and the modifications on their lease terms and the composition of the group which has a number of important, prominent people from Nashville on it I think will give this franchise every opportunity to get back to the levels it was when it first came into the league so this is an opportunity to move forward in a very positive way," said Bettman.
-New NHL Players' Association executive director Paul Kelly addressed owners.
"They applauded when I finished, which I suspect is a good thing," said Kelly. "They didn't throw me out. They listened attentively. I sensed that they were hanging on every word. They were gracious. Each and every one of them shook my hand when I left. So I think it was a positive experience."
-A look at league finances and early projections for this season's revenues. Owners were told that the salary cap will probably go up yet again next year.
"Revenues are going to go up and as a result, so will the cap," said Bettman, who stopped short of sharing a possible salary cap figure for next season. "I don't want to share it with you yet because it's a little too early in the season. It's one thing for me to share it with the owners with all the appropriate caveats it's another to run loud with it. It's only November and while our projections are good they tend to get refined over the season."
Friday's meeting will be highlighted by a discussion on the state of the game with the downward trend in goal scoring the main focus.
But the big news Thursday was the new schedule format. The current format has been in existence since the lockout ended and has ignited much debate not only among owners and GMs but also with fans and media. It features eight games versus each divisional opponent - too many according to some - and only 10 games (five on the road) against non-conference opponents.
Superstar Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, for example, finally plays his first career regular-season games in Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary next week - in his third year in the league. This season the unbalanced schedule also has the Oilers, Flames and Canucks not playing a single regular-season game against Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa.
Now every team will see every team again next season. But instead of a three-year commitment to the format, the league will go on a year-by-year basis for now.
"Our fans are telling us this is what they want," said Calgary Flames chairman Harley Hotchkiss. "They want to see Crosby, (Alex) Ovechkin and (Ilya) Kovalchuk. Everybody got to see Wayne Gretzky when he played. This is a happy medium."
A happy medium because other Western governors wanted a home-and-home between every team in the league, but that wasn't going to cut it with several Eastern teams who didn't want to change from the current schedule because the travel is so good.
Kelly says the players were happy to see the schedule cut down the divisional games but actually preferred going to an 84-game schedule which would break down as follows: 24 divisional games, 30 against the rest of the conference and 30 against the other conference - a home and home.
"First of all it's never been formally proposed to us by the union and it's something that we'll talk about," Bettman said.
If enough support is generated in the 84-game idea it could possibly see the light of day in two years.
Kelly, meanwhile, had a clear message for owners. While his background as a federal prosecutor and criminal lawyer in Boston means he would never back down from a fight, he also wants to avoid if possible a labour war.
"I told them expressly that it is my view that any labour interruption in this sport would be devastating," said Kelly. "That the public, particularly in the United States, would turn away in disgust. And that we owe it to the game and to the fans to work through issues and to avoid any discussions of lockouts and strikes. And I sensed a positive agreement on the part of the owners to that comment."
But he also told owners no decision yet had been taken on whether or not the union will opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement after next season, the fourth of six years in the deal.
"I told them that with respect to the CBA, that I am still evaluating it, still talking to the players about it," said Kelly.
"That it's really too early at this point to talk about a re-opener at the end of next season. We're going to wait until the end of this season and see where we are.
"But I also told them, consistent with my overall view and attitude, that if there are issues and concerns that I think we ought to initiate a healthy dialogue at the end of this season and work to resolve those things through discussion and compromise and not kind of let those issues fester and put them off until the last minute when it's too late."
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