NHL Missing Boat On Holiday-Based Scheduling

By Colin Likas

We’ve entered one of the rare lull periods in the NHL regular season, as all teams have the next three days off by league rule. The break is probably appreciated by players, especially those on teams that have had recently crowded schedules. (The Chicago Blackhawks, for example, had played eight games in the last 13 days after Tuesday’s loss to Dallas). Of course, players want to be with the families when they can during the season.

But at the end of the day, the NHL is a business. Not only is it a business, but it’s one of the United States’ four major sports — and the least-followed of those four at that. So why is the league not doing what the NBA does on Christmas and what the NFL does on Thanksgiving: having a few games scheduled for the masses to easily see?

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While holidays are a time for family, they’re also a time when those families gather around their TVs to watch whatever is on. During Thanksgiving, that’s NFL games. During Christmas, it’s NBA games, with some college football bowl games sprinkled on the days around Dec. 25.

The NHL? It has games on New Year’s Eve and Day, but those holidays aren’t nearly the same as Thanksgiving and Christmas. If people are gathering around TV for those days, it’s to watch the ball drop in New York City or something of that nature. Or to watch the plethora of college bowl games on Jan. 1. The NHL really doesn’t have a holiday it uses to cater to the masses, and those of us who watch a lot of hockey know the league could sure use it.

Simple solution: The NHL should contest a few games per season on the day of Christmas. It’d be less difficult to compete with the NBA than the NFL (on Thanksgiving), and having three high-profile hockey games on Dec. 25 would guarantee big ratings — especially among the youth ages the NHL craves to cater to.

There could be a noon-time game, an outdoor game after that and a night game to cap it off. The games, like those in the NBA on Christmas, could feature the league’s premier teams. One of them could be a rematch of the previous Stanley Cup Final, while the other two could feature teams that finished atop or near the top of their respective divisions the previous season. Sure, you might occasionally wind up with a situation like the Anaheim Ducks, where they went from Pacific Division champion to NHL cellar dweller in a hurry, but you’ll generally get teams that have stronger fan bases with players that the general public is going to be interested in seeing.

So let’s take last season as an example. For the noon-time game, you could have St. Louis at Anaheim. For the outdoor game, you could have the New York Rangers against Montreal — perhaps at Yankee Stadium, perhaps at a Canadian venue. And for the night game, you have the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Chicago Blackhawks, a Stanley Cup Final rematch. Sounds like a solid hockey showcase on paper.

The only drawbacks to this idea are competing with another major league and potential disatisfaction among players and other team personnel. As far as the first issue goes, NBC and NBC Sports Network would gladly help the NHL shift some focus away from the NBA in the United States. (This shouldn’t be nearly as much of a concern in Canada.) Even if the NBA retains half of its audience across each of its games on Christmas, the NHL can still drag casual fans who are also willing to give hockey a shot. And there’s the built-in fan bases for each of these hockey teams that the league knows will tune in. Hockey fans can be kind of rabid, after all, quite unlike fans of teams in the other three major leagues.

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Looking at the audience stats from the 2014 NBA Christmas games, Cleveland/Miami drew 9.3 million viewers by itself on ABC. Oklahoma City/San Antonio garnered 6.0 million fans on ABC as well. The Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls carried 3.9 million viewers on TNT, while Golden State/Los Angeles Clippers and Washington/New York drew a combined 6.1 million on separate ESPN telecasts. If the NHL can take a chunk of those audiences in competing timeslots with the hypothetical trio of hockey games, and you add that to built-in fan bases, the league should be pretty pleased with its television results.

Now, the potential for negative reaction from players, coaches and others who actually have to work on Christmas isn’t something you can measure like television statistics. But, the NBA’s Christmas games seem to be well-accepted by those who are directly involved with them. Players and coaches seem, on the whole, to view the opportunity to play on Christmas as an honor and the result of being on a successful team. While some family time is lost as a result of playing basketball, it seems as though many players bring have their families with them for festivities after their event has concluded.

Overall, there would be more positives for the league than negatives related to placing a few games on Christmas Day. The league could try scheduling games for Thanksgiving Day instead, but competing with the NFL is a much more difficult task than competing with the NBA. This is something I think the league should strongly consider down the road.