DtFR Overtime: Have your break and eat it too

In this week’s edition of DtFR Overtime, I’ll tackle one of the things we highlighted in the most recent podcast: the bye weeks.

As was outlined in a previous post, the NHL is in Year 2 of implementing bye weeks into its schedule. Starting January 7, all teams will have a five-day minimum break that will begin no later than today. Everyone will be back in action no later than January 20.

Within that post, I outlined some of the things I like about this year’s iteration of the byes (specifically, their being compacted into a span of 13 days instead of strewn over the course of more than two months), but also touched on some of my concerns.

One of my biggest complaints was that the entire month of January would feel very thin in terms of games played. That is no more obvious than in my “Game of the Day” column, as I’ve repeated three teams twice in the span of six days.

Of course, there’s bigger issues than my daily writings. Time off abounds at this stage of the schedule, as the NHL has added bye weeks between its already existing three-day holiday break (December 24-26) and the four-day All-Star Break (January 26-29).

This choppiness, among other reasons, is one of the reasons the NHL has been floating the idea of eliminating the All-Star Game entirely, apparently wanting to find a way to expand its reach in foreign markets.

Among the DtFR crew, we’d been discussing how we felt interest in the All-Star Game among fans was declining. However, with just a little bit of research, I discovered that, according to SB Nation, last year’s All-Star Game brought in a 1.6 TV rating for NBC, reaching over 2.5 million Americans (sorry Canada, your results didn’t pop up in the first return).

Now, that doesn’t sound like a lot when you compare it to such sports broadcasts as Super Bowl LI, which garnered 111.3 million views, but it is actually a solid number in relation to recent NHL All-Star spectacles. The 2017 All-Star Game was the highest-viewed edition of the event since the 2004 festivities in St. Paul, Minn., and marked a second-consecutive year of growth in viewership.

The NHL saw a steep decline when the All-Star Game moved from ABC to NBCSN (dropping from a 2.5 rating in 2004 to a .5 in 2007), but the move back to broadcast television last year seems to have been a good move. So good, in fact, that 2017’s 1.6 rating is superior to both the 2017 (1.5) and 2018 Winter Classics (1.4).

And don’t think TV numbers are the only thing important here. All-Star Games are still must-see events for fans in the host markets. In fact, by compiling All-Star Game attendances and comparing it to stadium capacities over the past 28 editions of the event, the NHL has reached max capacity – if not exceeded it – 21 of the 28 times.

That’s why I’m of the opinion that the NHL shouldn’t be thinking of scrapping the All-Star Game. The fans, which is a growing number in and of itself (I mean, who would’ve expected a hockey team to actually work out in Vegas?), still want to see the best of the best compete with and against each other.

However, the spectators are just one part of the puzzle. More than a handful of players (C Sidney Crosby, C Pavel Datsyuk, D Nicklas Lidstrom, W Alex Ovechkin and C Jonathan Toews come to mind, just to name a handful) have skipped the All-Star Game in recent years – some with more believable excuses for their absences than others – and I think that is where the real problem lies. Many players do not want to risk expending energy, getting hurt or further straining an existing injury in an exhibition game that ultimately does not matter, to the point that they are willing to serve a one-game suspension that only extends their time off.

Therefore, we have two parties: one that wants to see the best hockey players in the world compete with no “less-thans” holding them back, and another that wants time off to heal and prepare for the final push of the season.

This dichotomy does not seem to be prevalent in the other two “Big Four” North American sports that play their All-Star Games mid-season. Perhaps they can provide a hint as to how to solve this problem.

It might have been just how I was raised, but I am under the impression that no athlete feels more honored to be a part of an All-Star Game than a baseball player. You can feel free to disagree with me, but the difficulty of achieving consecutive appearances, plus the storied tradition – not to mention the lower risk of injury – make it a very desirable experience and honor. There’s obviously players who have skipped the Midsummer Classic (SS Derek Jeter, P Stephen Strasburg, etc.), but it is not something that happens often for sportsmen that play at least 150 games per regular season.

This summer, MLB will give almost every team (the Cardinals and Cubs are the exception, as the league is experimenting with highlighting one game in a sort of “Opening Day to the Second Half of the Season” this year) a four-day break before resuming play following the festivities in Washington, D.C., an eternity in a 162-game season. Even the All-Stars themselves will take at least two days off, and most will get three since only eight participate in the Home Run Derby.

Of course, baseball is the least strenuous sport of the “Big Four,” but there’s still enough time for even those selected to the All-Star Game to take a moment to rest before the second half of the season, especially since most play only an inning or two in the exhibition.

Next up is the NHL’s redheaded stepchild-turned-attention hog of the winter months, the NBA (Don’t believe me, NBA fans? Time for you to read up on why professional basketball exists).

The Association’s All-Star Break is scheduled a little bit later than the NHL’s and won’t take place until February 16-21 this season, with the action taking place in Staples Center – the site of last year’s NHL All-Star Game.

Just like in hockey and baseball, the NBA stages a skills competition the day before its actual All-Star Game, but that still leaves four days for the players involved in the festivities to rest and recoup, and six for the scrubs (not really, there’s tons of deserving players that get left off the two 12-men rosters). You know, because most of them there don’t request nights off at least once a month.

Shots fired NBA.

All jokes aside, I’m sure you noticed something both these leagues have that the NHL doesn’t: an actual break. The NHL All-Star Break lasts only four days, as all but the Kings will be in action on January 16 (only because there isn’t a 32nd team for them to play – yet) and most will jump right back to the fray on January 30.

Perhaps this is why the NHLPA requested bye weeks when the league wanted to switch to the three-on-three backyard pickup-style tournament?

And so, at long last, I present an option that could potentially save the All-Star Game from extinction while also preserving the time off the players desire: we simply need to expand the All-Star Break to an actual week.

In a perfect world, my solution can resolve both concerns facing the league and its players. By extending the break, the players – even those elected into the weekend’s festivities – get to take more time off the ice to rest and recuperate, and coaches could probably convince the NHLPA to allow them to recommence light installation practices the last day before resuming play.

Another problem this might fix is the NHL’s ratings during the All-Star Game. While a 1.6 rating is good, you have to believe the league would like to see higher numbers. Maybe – just maybe – the league can create enough of a “hockey famine” that fans would tune in to get a sampling of the sport before their favorite clubs returned to the ice.

My plan?

Have play commence until the Wednesday before the All-Star Game (within this season’s calendar, that would be January 24). The league can decide whether it wants this to be a normal Wednesday with only two or three games, or if wants to cash in like the day before the break begins this year and schedule as many games as possible. I’m not picky.

Continuing the presumption we’re editing this year’s schedule, the All-Star Festivities would still take place in Tampa on January 27 (Skills Competition) and 28 (63rd All-Star Game), but players would not be back in action with their actual clubs on January 30 like they’re currently slated to be. Instead, the NHL would not schedule play again until the next Tuesday or Wednesday (January 30 or 31).

This would allow at least four days of rest for all players whether they’re All-Stars or not, and six days for those not involved in the weekend’s festivities. I feel, with that amount of time off, the league might be able to go back to a time without bye weeks, circa 2016.

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