The National Hockey League is considering an overhaul of its scheduling with a shift that would create more games between geographic rivals, ease travel demands, and generate more money for teams across the league.
NHL owners and executives have discussed the potential change multiple times over the past few months, according to people familiar with the conversations. The plan was not a formal agenda item for governors at league meetings this week in Florida, but it was discussed at the GM meetings in Toronto last month.
The proposal, according to the people, would create more games between local rivals—like, say, an Edmonton Oilers vs. Calgary Flames matchup dubbed the “Battle of Alberta.” The two teams play just three times this year, but could meet six to eight times under the discussed changes, the people said. Local rivalries tend to draw more fans, so teams will make more with a higher-profile schedule while simultaneously reducing travel costs.
The plan has other benefits as well. Less travel means less wear on the players over the full 82-game regular season, which is often criticized for being too long and too taxing on athletes. It’s also likely attractive to the league’s TV partners—Turner, ESPN and Rogers—which would also benefit from more rivalry games.
An NHL representative declined to comment.
The NHL’s current scheduling algorithm is built around league-wide parity. Teams play everyone in their conference at least three times (some division rivals face off four times), and then home-and-home matchups against all 16 teams in the opposite conference. Every team plays every other team at least twice; and every team plays in every city at least once.
It’s a version of parity that some in the NHL believe creates too much travel and not enough of the highest-profile games. The Flames and Oilers played twice in October—the road team won both—and have just one more showdown across the season’s final 73 games. They won’t meet again after Dec. 27.
The idea behind this shift was partially bolstered by the NHL’s COVID-disrupted 2020-21 season, the people said. To limit travel during that year, the league redrew all four divisions, including a seven-team group of all the Canadian franchises. Every team played 56 games, entirely within its division, meaning some Canadian rivals played 10 times.
Teams will save on reduced travel, but the real financial impact would be in the rivalry games, which could draw more ticket sales, and a larger TV audience. The New Jersey Devils, for example, averaged 12,744 fans per game last season, but drew 15,767 in the two games they hosted against the New York Rangers.
The discussion comes amid growth in the NHL’s business. Hockey-related revenue was $5.2 billion last season, higher than it was pre-pandemic, as the league began its new U.S. TV deals with ESPN and Turner. The average NHL franchise is now worth $1.01 billion, according to Sportico’s most recent numbers-- a 9% jump from last year.
Travel is impacting on-ice strategy as well. Dallas Stars GM Jim Nil recently told ESPN that teams are using more two-goalie tandems because of their strenuous travel schedules, which sometimes include four road games in six days.