Nov 5, 2001
There is a phrase that has been uttered so often it has become a hockey cliché. It has been around since the NHL expanded to twenty-one teams, and changed the playoff format, allowing sixteen of those 21 teams to make the playoffs. I realized that I, myself was guilty of uttering it on more than one occasion. That is, until I heard my friend Daniel mention it, and I realized... that it is a total untruth.
The phrase: The regular season is meaningless.
The argument goes something like this: so many teams make the playoffs, it is almost a foregone conclusion from the second week of the season who will make the playoffs, and who will get all those great early tee-times. That may have worked when only 5 of 21 teams sat out, but in these days of rapid expansion and a thirty team league, fourteen teams sit on the outside, looking in at sixteen teams.
Try telling Boston and Phoenix that last year's regular season meant nothing - both missed the playoffs on tiebreakers, having less wins than Carolina and Vancouver, respectively. Phoenix and Boston were not bad teams last year, which happens to lose out to teams that were simply less bad by a win or two. Phoenix was 35-27-3, with three losses in overtime. 90 points in a season, and no post-season dates for Phoenix. Boston had 88 points, on the strength of a 36-30-8 season, with 8 losses in overtime. Phoenix and Boston were tied for 14th and 17th in the league in points, respectively, and, by seasons' end, had a grand total of nothing to show for it.
Try telling the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Ottawa Senators, and Vancouver Canucks that the regular season means nothing. Especially north of the border, teams need to start strong, and keep fans filling in through the gates of the Pengrowth Saddledome (Calgary), Corel Centre (Ottawa), G.M. Place (Vancouver) or Skyreach Centre (Edmonton). Any small-market team needs a hot start to spark fan interest and bring it closer to the playoffs.
Ahhh, the playoffs, that magical land where 55% of NHL teams get to go and take part of the massive revenue that is generated by them. For teams like Ottawa, Calgary and Vancouver, the playoffs can mean the difference between a million dollar loss and a million dollar profit. Edmonton, a team that always seems to make the playoffs, needs to improve and not suffer another first round loss to truly partake in money that will keep the team competitive.
The vicious circle in the NHL is interesting... you need money to build a competitive team that attracts fans, but you need a competitive team that attracts fans, whose money supports said competitive team. Joseph Heller is smiling somewhere.
A strong team in the regular season can falter, as Ottawa and Detroit did last year, or win the Presidents' trophy and the Stanley Cup, al a Colorado. Teams can have a relatively mediocre regular season, squeak into the playoffs, and create some notice for themselves; like Toronto and Los Angeles against the above-mentioned Ottawa and Detroit. A long regular season also allows for a fan to see how their team fares against the best. I had the Leafs-Avalanche game circled in my head since June last year, and was pleasantly surprised when my boys beat the cup champs 4-1. I look forward to seeing how the future all-stars of the league play, and am looking forward to all four games Toronto has this season against Atlanta, with Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk.
The regular season is not meaningless by any stretch of the imagination. It allows for teams to get hot, cold and hot again, it gives players and franchises second chances. The regular season lets everyone see their team play at least one game against every other team in the league, which can't be a bad thing. I want to know if the Blackhawks are as real as the Islanders. I need to know how much gas Detroit has left in their oxygen machines. I ache to find out what exactly is wrong with Colorado. What can I say? Inquiring minds want to know, and the regular season lets fans know everything.
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