84-game schedule a lock

SCOTT MORRISON

, Last Updated: 9:41 AM ET

The next time the NHL governors gather, you can be certain of three things: The weather will be warm, they will be in close proximity to golf, and the idea of an 84-game schedule will be high on the agenda.

All three are a lock, actually.

Paul Kelly, the new head of the NHL Players' Association, told the governors on Thursday in California that the players favoured the idea of an 84-game schedule -- with a reduced pre-season -- allowing them to visit and play host to every team. That, inevitably, is the next step, now that the league has decided to return to the pre-lockout schedule matrix. Currently, the NHL season is 82 games.

Even commissioner Gary Bettman admitted that adding two games would be an easy fit with the schedule that will go into place next season, with division games reduced to six from eight, and teams playing 18 games (one against every team) in the other conference.

That the players waited until Thursday to offer their thoughts on the 84-game schedule precluded the governors from debating the merits of the plan, first put forth by the Detroit Red Wings. But it will happen.

"We made the schedule better," Red Wings governor Jimmy Devellano said. "That plan was easy to get through. I realized we couldn't get two-thirds approval for our 84-game plan, but this is a good step forward. The players have told Paul Kelly that they would like a home-and-home with every team. It doesn't appear like it's going to be a hard sell.

"Probably next year, we'll go back with our proposal of 84 games and reducing the pre-season from nine to six games."

Bettman would not confirm that this was the logical next step. But he also would not say that it wasn't.

"There wasn't time for the governors to consider it," said Bettman, adding that there are several issues that come into play, including when the season starts and ends and the impact on revenues. Pre-season games, as unappealing as they are, can be a cash cow for teams. It's all money in, no money out because players aren't paid in the pre-season.

But the idea of playing every team home-and-home, as much as it adds to travel and expenses, is still a good one.

Playing two more games is fine, but only if the exhibition schedule is reduced and not all general managers will be in favour of a shorter training camp.

But inevitably, it seems 84 games is on the horizon, which isn't new. For two seasons, starting in 1992-93, the NHL played an 84-game schedule with the vaunted neutral-site games, then went into the lockout and emerged with 82.

"In order to play each team in the East home and away, we're going to have to have more games," Red Wings vice-president Steve Yzerman said. "I think that's the only way to do it. The schedule we're going to go forward with, in the near term at least, is a step in the right direction."

ON THE SAME PAGE

Probably the most significant moment in the governors meetings, the one all were anxious to see and hear, was the talk Kelly had with the governors.

With the union having the ability to re-open the CBA at the end of next season, with new leadership in place, the owners and GMs wanted to get an idea of what direction Kelly was taking the association, of how militant he might be.

All were impressed.

"It was an opportunity to introduce myself and tell them a little bit about my background," Kelly said. "And also tell them about my preliminary views, how I intend to approach the job, where I see some of the positives in the sport, where I think perhaps we can do a little better.

"I told them that with respect to the CBA, I am still evaluating it, still talking to the players. We're going to wait until the end of this season and see where we are (with regard to reopening the CBA). But I also told them, consistent with my overall view and attitude, that if there are issues and concerns, I think we ought to initiate a healthy dialogue at the end of this season and work to resolve those things through discussion and compromise, and not kind of let those issues fester and put them off until the last minute when it's too late.

"But at this point, absolutely no decisions have been made relative to the reopening of the CBA.''

The best thing Kelly said, that one and all can agree on, is that another lockout or strike would kill hockey south of the border.

''I told them expressly that it is my view that any labour interruption in this sport would be devastating," Kelly said. "That the public, particularly in the United States, would turn away in disgust. We owe it to the game and to the fans to work through issues and to avoid any discussions of lockouts and strikes. And I sensed a positive agreement on the part of the owners to that comment.''

No kidding.

The bottom line is that Kelly made it clear he wants to avoid the worst-case scenario, but he isn't going to be a pushover, either.

STATE OF THE GAME

Finally, the governors put aside an hour yesterday to discuss the state of the game, had trouble stretching the discussion to 45 minutes and emerged almost unified saying they were pleased with the quality of the game, despite the fact scoring is down.

One of the dissenting voices was the Buffalo Sabres, who think the league needs to spend more time researching the game and potential solutions to the problems that affect it.


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