Why playing for the Stanley Cup in July makes sense

The Globe and Mail

Los Angeles Kings' Jarret Stoll is pursued by photographers as he holds up the Stanley Cup after his team defeated the New Jersey Devils in Game 6 of the NHL Stanley Cup hockey final in Los Angeles, June 11, 2012

(Reuters)

The NHL governor we wrote about elsewhere on these pages, the one who advocates playing the Stanley Cup final in July if that's what it takes to get in a full 82-game season, has an interesting theory about why that would not be a bad thing as a one-off.

His theory may not thrill some of his fellow governors, and certainly not NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, but it makes sense. And it's worth mulling over while waiting for the 3 p.m. start of the most crucial round of talks thus far in the lockout at an allegedly secret location in New York.

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The governor, who cannot be named because of Bettman's gag order on management types during the lockout, said the only way the players will get what they want most in this labour dispute - 100 per cent of the value of their existing contracts - is if all 82 games in the regular season are played along with a full playoff schedule. While everyone else discusses this on the assumption no games would be played beyond June 30, this governor sees no problem with extending the league final into July if necessary for this season only.

His theory is that unless a team with national appeal is involved in the Cup final, like the New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings or perhaps the Detroit Red Wings, the series does not draw a strong national audience in the United States. That is true to a lesser extent in Canada, as a Vancouver Canucks - Toronto Maple Leafs or Canucks - Montreal Canadiens final would draw huge numbers but not necessarily so if other teams were involved.

"Aside from those teams, the Stanley Cup final is mostly regional," the governor said. "It's a big deal in those cities but not everywhere else."

So the fans of the two teams would watch their favourite in the final no matter when it's held, which means the all-important gate receipts would be the same as if it were played in the far more palatable (to the NHL anyway) month of June. And, hey, the league gets its $355-million (all currency U.S.) per year from the U.S. and Canadian television networks no matter how many people are watching.

This may not be music to Bettman's ears, as it is his job to sell NHL hockey as a mainstream sport in the U.S., but the TV ratings for past Cup finals bears this out. See Carolina Hurricanes versus Edmonton Oilers, circa 2006.

As for the chances of a new collective agreement resulting from this session of bargaining, both sides remain cautiously optimistic. The owners and general managers say the players have to accept the fact it will take a few years to pay their existing contracts in full, if not give them a slight haircut, because you can't do it right away when you have to shoehorn something based on a 57-per-cent share of revenue into a 50-50 split. The players' caution stems from the fact the owners' pattern in these negotiations is to make a splashy leak to management-friendly media about what an enormous concession they're prepared to make, which turns out to be not so enormous on closer inspection.

If the optimism is to grow, we won't hear until this evening - at this point only the NHL Players' Association plans to address the media - if the players think there is hope for a deal. Any earlier news will not be good since it would probably mean talks broke off again.

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