With reports coming out today that the NHL will be expanding to 6 "Winter Classic" games in the 2013-2014 season it seems clear that the National Hockey League is looking to milk it's cash cow for all it's worth. I can't blame them for wanting to make money, but I also understand the mixed feelings from fans about this, and the concerns that outdoor hockey might be getting ready to "jump the shark" with all this exposure. If handled correctly, more outdoor hockey will certainly be a better thing. If anything, the problem I see with the NHL's new plan is they aren't adding enough games.
A few years back (long enough ago that I couldn't find it on Google) I remember Larry Brooks writing a column about how the NHL could better handle the holiday season. Brooks suggested that the NHL set aside the time around Christmas and New Years, and have all the teams play regional rivals in an unofficial holiday tournament of sorts. The games played would still count as league games, but it would help teams limit travel around the holidays. The league would recognize these games as being special, and some sort of award, similar to what might be done in European sports or college rivalries, would be given to the winning team. The results would still count for nothing more then the points they represent in the standings though.
Now, combine Brooks idea with the NHL's expanded outdoor schedule, and I think that you have a real winner. The NFL has embraced Thanksgiving as their holiday. The NBA has set their sites on Christmas. The NHL has tried to set theirs on New Year's day with the Winter Classic, but the reality is that New Years Day has belonged to NCAA football for years. Rather then trying to compete for one day, why not cast a bigger net, and hope to draw more attention over a longer time period? Break the league down into ten mini-tournaments, each featuring three regional rivals, with all the games played at one host facility, between Christmas and New Years.
Now that I've throw it out there, let's get down to the brass tacks of it all. Each team would play the other teams in their group once, so we'd be talking about each team playing two games (one as the "home" team and one as the "visitor"), with three NHL games played at each site. If you keep the groups the same, you move the "host" city each season, so even though you might be playing a "home game" in another city, it will come back around within 3 years. To put the schedule in perspective, the Rangers played 3 games last year, between Christmas and New Years, so this shouldn't be a huge deal to make work. I'd imagine the PA would be willing to squeeze an extra game somewhere else during the season to keep their guys off long flights at the holidays.
So, how do you break this down, well here's my suggestion, off the top of my head.
1. Habs, Sens, Bruins
2. Rangers, Devils, Isles
3. Flyers, Pens, Caps
4. Leafs, Sabers, Wings
5. Panthers, Bolts, Canes
6. Jackets, Hawks, Wild (someone has to go West to make it work)
10 'Yotes, Jets, Aves
To break it down, #1,#2,#3, #4, #6 and #8 are an absolute license to print money, enough big hockey markets to carry the little guys in any group. #7 and #9 should hold own with such big markets coming together, and the novelty of the games being played in a warm climate. You can probably take the Panthers, Bolts, Canes group and sell that event to Disney every year. The Canes hockey culture would make them a great host, but they'd have to draw all the fans themselves. That leaves us with #10 - Coyotes, Jets and Aves. This really is the group that had to go somewhere, and none of them really have a close, geographic rival. I could see this group being spun and sold in Europe, or to another neutral site. While they're adding travel into the equation, all three of these teams could benefit from the exposure Europe would give their teams and merchandise.
From the serious fans perspective, you get the chance to see your team play, against a rival, outdoors, close to home, twice a year, and certainly in your back yard every 3 years. For the causal fan, this brings together everything they love, the novelty of outdoor games, the tournament feel of the Olympics and NHL playoff hockey, and it's some thing great, for the whole family, to throw on in the background while your out visiting over the holidays, or to make small talk about with your cousins you twice a year if you have to.
For the league, they put all their teams and players in the spotlight, right as the season is turning for home, and get people to watch for more then just a few hours, once a year. You draw them in with the novelty, and get them to come back for the game as the NHL pushes to the playoffs. For the players, while there might be some travel, it still stays somewhat limited. Hopefully the teams, league, and PA would come together, and with the teams in one place for so long, encourage this to be a family event, similar to "Dad's Trips" that teams often do.
So there it is. Now as soon as Gary reads this, the Holiday's will be better then ever!