When the Toronto Maple Leafs return to play, they won’t be doing it at Scotiabank Arena, but instead at a hub city with the rest of the Eastern Conference.
As unfortunate as it is that the Toronto Maple Leafs won’t be getting a home playoff game this year, it’s the only logical way for the NHL to return to play safely.
But what’s going to happen next season? Will each team go back to normal with home games with fans? Will they play games without fans, or will they have to continue to play at a neutral site?
All of these questions won’t have answers anytime soon, but the future of travel in hockey should look different moving forward, even when we’re back to normal.
Future NHL Travel Problems
For whatever reason, I can’t see teams flying to different cities every other day and having players risk their health in the new world we live in.
If we’re going to continue in a world without fans, I think a neutral site makes sense for the entire season because that’s the safest and easiest way to do something. However, if we continue with fans, I believe there’s a solution that works as well.
Using the Eastern Conference and specifically Toronto Maple Leafs as an example, there’s a way to keep players safe, yet give each city a wonderful experience.
Let’s start with the plan.
In order to keep everyone safe throughout the season, the NHL should break their schedule out per city. With that said, all eight cities in the Atlantic Divsion will host games from October-March.
As mentioned, using the Atlantic Division for example, every team will play one game against each other in every city throughout the season.
Therefore, if we’re talking about the Toronto Maple Leafs, they would play one game against Boston, Montreal, Tampa Bay, Florida, Buffalo, Ottawa and Detroit in every city they go.
For divisional play, each team would play 56 total games. That’s much more than normal but it also allows for a safer product.
Each city would get the opportunity to watch their favourite team seven times, but they would also get an additional 21 games of action that they typically wouldn’t get to watch.
Instead of having a traditional regular season, each city could use this as a festival and make it a special event each year. It’s obviously a downside for Season Ticket Members who would normally get to see 41 total games at home, but it’s still 28 games of ticket revenue that teams could sell.
You could definitely up-sell those seven home games for each team, since those are the only games they’ll have all year. Also, for teams like the Ottawa Senators, Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning who already have a large Toronto Maple Leafs fan-support in those cities, it may help drive additional revenue.
The Tampa Bay Lightning would not only sell-out their normal home-games, but the snow-birds down south would help sell-out the Maple Leafs games as well.
Since that only gets you to 56 total games, each team would play all Metropolitan Divisional opponents two times to round out a 72-game season.
So where would those additional 16 games be played? Well, this is where it gets fun.
To keep the Hub City theme, the Eastern Conference would pick a non-NHL city to host these games for a two-month stretch. Whether it’s Kansas City, Houston or Quebec City for example, the NHL would be able to bring hockey to a market that doesn’t have a team.
Not only would the league make a ton of money by having professional hockey back in Quebec City for example, but it would be a safe environment for the players with less travel restrictions.
Ticket sales would be through the roof to watch a Montreal vs. Pittsburgh game in Quebec City and if this was deemed a success, it may help their case for expansion down the road. It’s almost a dress-rehearsal to show the NHL how dedicated the fan-base is and why they deserve NHL hockey again.
Instead of having a one-week festival in a market like the NFL does with the Super Bowl, the NHL would get a two-month festival to create excitement for their game and draw new fans.
With less regular season games, but hopefully more revenue due to the excitement and limited inventory for each city, the last thing would be to keep the expanded playoffs but instead of 24 teams, have a 20-team playoff.
The top-six teams in each conference would get a bye while teams 7,8,9 and 10 would play each other in a Best-of-Five Series as follows: 7 vs. 10 and 8 vs. 9.
Once the Play-In/Playoffs start, we’ll go back to normal with each team hosting their home games, so we don’t lose the opportunity for fans to watch their team in the playoffs at home.
So to recap, here’s what everything would look like if we use Toronto for an example.
- Toronto Maple Leafs:
- 7 Games in Toronto, Boston, Buffalo, Montreal, Florida, Tampa Bay, Ottawa and Detroit facing each Atlantic Divisional opponent once (56 games total)
- 2 games versus each Metropolitan Divisional team at Neutral Site (16 games total)
- 72 Game Regular Season
- 20-Team Playoff Format (Best-of-Five Play-In Series for 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th seeds)
- Best-of-Seven Series will follow for Series after that
It may sound little crazy but this format allows players to stay in the same place for an extended period of time so in case anyone detects the virus, they’ll be able to track it easier. Also, instead of traveling 41 times per season, teams only have to travel eight times, so they’ll less exposed and less likely to get the virus.
It’s like a travelling circus that creates a higher demand for tickets as your favourite team is only in town for seven games per year.
There’s no perfect solution to fix the NHL moving forward, but this plan may be a step in the right direction.