The 2003 Stanley Cup final is remembered as the Paul Kariya Memorial series. Kariya didn’t die. It just looked that way for a minute after Scott Stevens annihilated him in Game 6. That was the moment the NHL’s headshot debate became its headshot problem.
Stevens’s New Jersey Devils won that final over Kariya’s Anaheim (then still Mighty) Ducks. It was a signpost moment in the league – brute force making one of its last stands against silken skill.
A storyline that was lost in the middle of that debate was scheduling.
The Ducks cruised into the series after a sweep in the conference final. On their side of the bracket, the Devils had a seven-game war with the Senators that featured two overtimes.
But instead of starting the series directly after the Devils wrapped up, the NHL delayed the final for four days.
Anaheim goalie Jean-Sébastien Giguèrre had been on an almighty heater to that point in the playoffs. After 11 days of idleness, he wasn’t on a heater any more. It didn’t help that his teammates failed to score a goal in the first two games.
This is to say nothing of the extra couple days of rest and what that must have meant to a New Jersey squad that had been driving in top gear for six successive weeks.
Those two extra days may have been nothing, but they were probably something.
On a smaller stage, the Toronto Maple Leafs are getting Anaheimed right now.
The Florida Panthers don’t want to play this Saturday night at home because 60 kilometres away, the Miami Heat are playing that afternoon.
If this were a logistics problem – switching an arena to ice from hardwood – then okay, understood. It isn’t. It isn’t even a scheduling problem. The Panthers just don’t want to play on the same day as the Heat.
For reasons that are its own, the NHL agreed with that. So Hockey Night in Canada becomes Hockey Night for Florida. They’ll play the game on Sunday instead.
They won’t play the next game until Wednesday, meaning an unusual three days off.
The fundamental question of all litigious disputes is qui bono? Who benefits?
It isn’t the Leafs. Momentum is more important to them right now than rest.
It isn’t Sportsnet. It paid all that broadcast money so that it could show the Leafs in meaningful playoff games on a Saturday night.
It doesn’t do the Edmonton Oilers any good. They thought they were playing Friday in Las Vegas. Now, because there’s a Leafs-sized hole in the Saturday night schedule, they will play on Saturday afternoon instead.
It doesn’t do fans any good. This may be news to the NHL, but regular people have jobs that typically run from Monday to Friday. They can go wild on a Saturday night. They have to keep it between the pipes on Sundays.
It doesn’t do the league any good. We are getting a visceral reminder of where the NHL’s braintrust sees itself in relation to the NBA – as basketball’s wimpy kid brother.
You think the NFL sits around going, ‘Let’s make sure there isn’t a big soccer game happening that Thursday’? It calls the scheduling tune and everyone dances. That’s why it’s the NFL.
The NHL loves to talk about how it is a big league. It would be easier to believe if it acted that way.
This doesn’t even serve the residents of Fort Lauderdale for the same reasons as fans anywhere else. Who wants to schlep out to an arena in the middle of nowhere on a Sunday night?
The only people who benefit from this are the few dozen who draw their cheques from the Florida Panthers organization.
The Panthers just had their own seven-game, two-overtime war with the Boston Bruins. They’re playing on adrenaline. That worked in Game 1. It might or might not in Game 2. If it doesn’t, then Florida gets a nice, little blow to gather its thoughts, while the Leafs are cooling their heels.
If Florida wins the second game, what does it care when Game 3 is? It will have the series in a headlock.
The Leafs haven’t said anything about this (publicly) because they aren’t stupid. The only thing that’s going to be accomplished by complaining is planting an excuse in the heads of their own players.
Toronto has managed thus far to keep the between-game controversies to a minimum. It may be its biggest area of improvement this postseason.
The Leafs also ramped up the physicality. Hits are flying so freely that even Morgan Rielly, who’s always been more of a Kariya than a Stevens, is standing guys up at centre ice. The approach is obvious. The hits you deliver in Game 1 may begin to take a toll by Game 5 or 6.
Unless the other team’s getting a league-mandated R’n’R break in the middle of the series. Maybe the Panthers can all head down to the beach and get massages. Maybe the NHL can order in some drinks.
The opacity of the NHL’s scheduling is a problem. Why do some series start two days after the teams are locked in, but some start three, others four. Why do some have multiday breaks while others don’t? No one ever bothers to explain the rationale.
That lack of explanation creates the impression of favouritism. In this instance, it also creates the impression of stupidity.
How is it possible that the NHL has scheduled a seven-game series in which its biggest commodity – the Maple Leafs – aren’t playing on a Saturday night?
It’s not just a competitive issue. It’s a matter of respect. Evidently, the NHL does not respect its core audience – Canadians.
In case nobody’s heard about it in New York, Canadian teams have not had a great go of it in the past 20-odd years. Opportunities to celebrate them en masse are thin on the ground.
So what does the league do? It stiffs a big chunk of Canada so that a couple of nervous business types in South Florida can shield their product from local competition. The resultant knock-on effect disadvantages two powerhouse Canadian teams, both with fanbases that dwarf the franchise being convenienced.
In any other business milieu, you’d be tempted to call it fixing. But because we’re talking about the NHL, you know it’s just the usual carelessness.