It would be nearly impossible to prove that Gary Bettman has a hand in influencing the NHL schedule, but a simple observation can’t be ignored.
One would have an incredibly hard time finding an NHL fan that loves Gary Bettman.
Greeted by boos no matter where he is or what he’s doing, the commissioner of the NHL since 1993 has led American hockey into not one, not two, but three lockouts, one of which that led to an entire season being missed in 2004-05.
Aside from his inability to keep the game on the ice, Bettman has gotten himself classified as a money hog, evidently favoriting his cash cows in Chicago, Pittsburgh and Washington.
The technically unimportant, yet certainly irritating proof that Bettman loves nothing more than to see Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Alex Ovechkin in the limelight is his insistence on putting them in almost every Winter Classic played.
For those who are unaware, the Winter Classic is an annual outdoor game held on or around New Year’s Day. It is, for all intents and purposes, nothing more than a way to sell jerseys, tickets and more jerseys to make a boatload of money off a game that means just as much as the other 81 played by each team participating.
Bettman likes to wax poetic about how the Winter Classic is about the purity of the game but, at the end of the day, he’s just another businessman.
Only 11 teams have participated in the nine Winter Classics that have been held since 2008: Chicago (three times, ironically losing each appearance), while Boston, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Washington have played in it twice.
Of course, it would have been nice to see 18 teams play in it, the number of clubs that could have participated if he chose two different teams every year, but he opted against that. He gave other teams of lesser importance (in his eyes) the chance to play outdoors in the Stadium Series, but that’s not nearly the spectacle the Winter Classic is.
This whole scenario makes him undeniably guilty of favoritism. But is there any way at all that Bettman is constructing the regular season schedule so that weaker teams undoubtedly fall out of the playoff picture, while also aiding teams like Pittsburgh to waltz right into the postseason unscathed?
Let’s look at the most unloved team in the NHL first, the New Jersey Devils.
On so many levels, the Devils get left behind. Not even the introduction to NHL Network’s NHL Tonight features the Devils for a second. Since Martin Brodeur has retired, there is absolutely nothing bringing the limelight to New Jersey and it seems that Bettman will never go out of his way to throw them a bone.
Assessing the tail end of the Devils schedule, specifically, their last fifteen games of the season, New Jersey competes against the Capitals, Rangers, Canadiens, and Penguins twice, one home, and one away. At the beginning of those fifteen games, the Devils go on the road for six straight, all in the Western Conference except the last, which is the aforementioned game on the road against Pittsburgh.
No matter how you slice it, a six-game road trip in the West, which takes up nearly all of March, followed by four of the remaining eight games against top tier playoff teams, makes it very hard for the Devils to finish off strong.
Shifting the analysis over to the Penguins, the conditions change quite drastically. First of all, Pittsburgh’s last game against the Western Conference is on February 11 and it’s against St. Louis, an up and down two-hour flight. The Western Conference matchup before that one is two days earlier in Dallas (making St. Louis a convenient place to stop in between). When does Pittsburgh have their extended West coast trip?
Answer: End of October, early November.
They return to the West just twice more, playing three games each trip, the last of which is in January. As for their last fifteen games, it isn’t a cake walk, but as the former Stanley Cup champions, every team could be considered easy to beat. They do get the Devils twice, the Islanders, and Detroit. They do actually have to play eight of those fifteen games on the road, but they travel no further than Montreal, a three-hour flight. The rest of them are bus trips.
It’s said that scheduling is out of the hands of the league, arranged by a business truly disconnected from Bettman. But with these coincidences, it’s hard not to raise an eyebrow.