Time to get the schedule right

The solution for fixing the NHL schedule is quite simple. Its blueprint is out, the system has been tested and it works.

Just ask the NBA.

Hockey fans want the opportunity to see every team, every season; not once every other year, and certainly not once every three seasons. They’ve made that abundantly clear since the NHL lockout ended in 2005 and the current scheduling format went into place.

The league’s Board of Governors will meet at Pebble Beach, Calif., Thursday and Friday, and it’s expected they will announce a new format before hitting the links. Let’s hope they get it right, and we’re not talking about their short game.

This really isn’t difficult. Like the NHL, the NBA has 30 teams divided into two conferences with three divisions of five teams each, all playing 82 games in the regular season.

Here’s the part NHL fans will love to hear. The NBA’s schedule allows for at least one visit by every team, every season, and it’s been that way for years. The biggest complaint? Teams want fewer situations where they are playing back-to-back nights.

There are no complaints from the fans.

Here’s how it works:

Each team plays two games against every team from the opposite conference, one in each team’s building, for a total of 30 games.

Each team plays their four division rivals four times each (twice at home and twice on the road) for 16 games.

That leaves 10 other in-conference opponents to be played 36 times. A team plays six of those teams four times each and the other four teams three times apiece (18 at home, 18 on the road).

In that scenario, NHL teams would still play a majority of games against conference opponents (52), which is what the standings and eventual playoff qualifying is based upon, yet they would not go two or even one season without hosting teams from the opposite conference.

Take Detroit for example. And not that this is about making the Red Wings happy, but as an Original Six team that battles a number of obstacles as a member of the Western Conference while residing in the Eastern time zone, this kind of setup makes sense.

The Wings would play four games each against Central foes Chicago, Columbus, Nashville and St. Louis, three or four games against teams from the Northwest and Pacific then host and travel to meet every team in the Eastern Conference.

Yes, it’s an unbalanced schedule. The only way to make it balanced is to add four games to the schedule so every team plays a total of four each against conference opponents for a total of 86 regular-season games. In reality, fewer than 82 games would benefit the product, but that’s a discussion for another time.

This suggestion means fans don’t have to wait three seasons to see every team. Amazing as it sounds, Sidney Crosby has yet to appear in every NHL building. The league’s youngest captain will finally complete the circuit next week when Pittsburgh visits Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver for the first time post-lockout.

It’s not just about Crosby, in his third NHL season, or Alex Ovechkin, or Henrik Lundqvist, or Vincent Lecavalier, either.

Barely a month after Joe Thornton was traded from Boston to San Jose, the Sharks visited Beantown in January of 2006, but Joe got tossed thanks to an awful call five minutes into his much-anticipated return. He hasn’t been back since.

Calgary lost Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals in Tampa. The Flames haven’t been back since.

Toronto last came to San Jose in October of 2003, the last time before that was in March of 1998 – or eight full seasons with just one appearance.

The current format, in place since the 2005-06 season, has teams playing division opponents eight times each, four against the other 10 conference foes and only 10 against non-conference opponents. The idea of cultivating more intense division rivalries has led to apathy, declining attendance and players murmuring about playing the same teams all the time.

Not only would copying the NBA format better appease fans, it will alleviate some travel inequities that currently exist.

Dallas, Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose and Vancouver travel more than the other 25 teams because of proximity. Travel won’t decrease for those teams, in fact it could increase, but at least teams in the East will be forced to spend more nights out of their beds.

When Boston opened this season with five straight, all against Pacific Division teams, it meant once the Bruins returned home on Oct. 14, they were set to play their remaining 77 games in the Eastern time zone.

In 2005-06, the five Atlantic Division teams played 79 of their 82 games in the same time zone, leaving the East only three times to visit Chicago, St. Louis and Nashville – all of one time zone away.

The Board of Governors are also expected to vote on Nashville’s sale to local investors, hear from new players’ association director Paul Kelly, and discuss league finances and the on-ice product. They might not go as far on the schedule as fans want, however.

The prevailing notion is they’ll adopt less change and go back to the pre-lockout format: six games against division opponents, four each against the remaining conference foes and at least one game against non-conference teams. That means hit-and-miss whether fans see non-conference opponents next year or the following season.

That would be unfortunate. Get it right from the start. Steal the plan from the NBA. If that league was good enough from which to pilfer the current commissioner, Gary Bettman, then feel free to take its scheduling format, too.