December 28, 2012

COMMENTARY — ON HOCKEY: Save season, then tweak the playoffs

BY LUKE DECOCK The News & Observer

RALEIGH, N.C. -- If the NHL can stop destroying itself long enough to get a deal done in time to save the season, this is as good a time as any to propose some changes to help the league get back on its feet. As any Carolina Hurricanes fan can attest, nothing - nothing - sells the game of hockey like a home playoff game.

So as the NHL emerges from the lockout, why not tweak the playoff format to give more teams a chance to host a playoff game? By adding a one-time-only preliminary round, another eight teams would make the playoffs, giving a bigger chunk of the league reason to get excited.

The apparent plan now, if the season can be saved before 2013, is to play 48 games starting Jan.?15. But if you were to play a 44-game schedule instead - three games home and away against each division opponent, one game home and away against the other teams in the conference - that frees up a week in the schedule.

Instead of those four regular-season games, let's have eight teams play for the bottom four spots in each playoff bracket. Not forever, just this season, when NHL teams will need all the help they can get repairing the damage left by yet another lockout.

The three division champions and the fourth team in the conference standings - the best team among the non-division winners - would get byes. This still is a meritocracy, after all. And instead of lopping off the three bottom teams in the standings, the three teams that finish last in their divisions stay home. If the shortened schedule is going to focus on division play, let's make it matter.

There are financial consequences to this plan. It means giving up 60 regular-season games, revenue from which is shared with the players, and replacing them with between 16 and 24 playoff games, revenue the owners keep for themselves.

The owners should be OK with that for obvious reasons, and so should the players, because it gives an additional 184 players a chance to win the Stanley Cup they wouldn't otherwise have, and it brings playoff hockey to eight markets that otherwise would be sitting idle after sitting idle for far too much of what should have been the season.

Why am I still optimistic there still will be a season? Because there has to be. I cannot fathom what the endgame is for either side if there isn't. You can't lose this battle to win the war. This is the war.

I trust Gary Bettman, Jeremy Jacobs, lockout lawyer Bob Batterman and his partners at Proskauer Rose haven't figured out a way to benefit from sitting out another season. I trust Donald Fehr isn't risking the livelihoods of his constituents - not to mention thousands of innocent, unfortunate others who depend on the game to survive and don't have millions in the bank - tilting against the windmill of the salary cap itself.

Sit out for the second time in eight years, and the NHL as we know it will die. It will be arena football. It will be horse racing, boxing, track and field or any of the other sports that once assumed various positions of primacy in the U.S. sporting landscape and pop up annually for their moment in the sun, only to recede back into insignificance.

If there isn't a deal, all of this is moot. So let's expect one. Let's hope for one. And let's talk now about tweaking the schedule and playoff format to give the NHL and its teams the best chance at surviving and thriving in the post-lockout world.

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