Chaos scheduling NHL with, without Olympics

NHL

When the NHL released its 2021-22 regular-season schedule, it featured a Winter Olympic break from Feb. 7-22 with the caveat that “no final agreement or decision has been made regarding the possible participation of players.”

If the NHL doesn’t send its players to the Beijing Games, it would switch to a revised schedule that will adopt as many dates from the current one as possible. But changing schedules this late in a truncated offseason would have a dramatic impact on the league’s teams, which are already selling tickets and scheduling travel based on the current schedule.

“In my own conversations, there are some teams that are acting like this is Armageddon,” an NHL team executive told ESPN this week.

Nearly three weeks after the schedule was revealed, talks between the NHL, NHLPA, IIHF and IOC are ongoing, with no indication if a deal can be successfully brokered on player participation. Complicating matters are the climbing numbers in the COVID pandemic; as well as the COVID restrictions that will be placed on athletes in Beijing, which could dwarf those that players experienced in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoff bubbles. The NHL has cited the pandemic as a primary factor in its decision to attend the Olympics for the first time since 2016, after vowing it would participate in the next two Winter Games in last summer’s Collective Bargaining Agreement with the players.

At least two NHL teams have told inquiring fans that a final decision on Olympic participation would be made by the end of August.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN that “yes, I think that’s accurate.”

All 32 teams have copies of the “revised” schedule without an Olympic break. For the most part, lengthy road trips land around the same time in both schedules, coinciding with building availability. But in other places, there are dramatic differences. Some teams estimate around 16 of 41 home dates will have to be rescheduled — one NHL team reported that six of its eight games in the opening month would have new dates

ESPN reached out to two dozen fans of different teams, all of whom own 2021-22 half-season and partial-season ticket plans. All of them said that their team ticket representatives had not communicated anything about the possibility of switching to a different schedule this season.

“The schedule was presented as if it was the final schedule,” said one Dallas Stars season-ticket holder.

Most of these ticket plans already have games attached to them. In some cases, it’s the fans who select which games they’ll attend throughout the season. In other cases, the teams select the road opponents. For example, the Boston Bruins have a plan with pre-selected games. The expansion Seattle Kraken have two half-season plans: One that includes the first regular-season home game in franchise history and one that does not.

Some NHL teams are preparing to sell single-game tickets even if Olympic participation isn’t finalized. One team told ESPN that it would begin selling tickets only for October’s home games, as that month that was least impacted by a switch to the second schedule. But the Columbus Blue Jackets, meanwhile, will begin selling the full season to single-ticket buyers on Aug. 20.

One of the challenges this Olympic uncertainty has caused: Teams aren’t able to market special events to their ticket buyers throughout the home schedule.

None of the fans that ESPN surveyed said they have received the 2021-22 promotional schedule — those bobblehead doll and magnetic calendar giveaways, and those games that welcome specific groups to the arena. Those dates haven’t been firmed up because rescheduling them is complicated. Because those nights are sponsorship activations, there would be an extra layer of negotiation necessary in moving them. So most NHL teams have chosen not to schedule them yet.

But a few teams have had to schedule events for next season that require special coordination. For example, the Dallas Stars announced they are retiring Hall of Fame defenseman Sergei Zubov‘s No. 56 on Jan. 28, 2022, to ensure Zubov, his family and former teammates could carve out time to attend the event.

There are ripple effects beyond ticket sales. Teams have had to schedule travel based on two different scheduling possibilities, too.

One NHL team booked the entire season of travel with the Olympic break scheduled. If the NHL opts not to go, their travel executives would have to “replicate that work again” for the revised schedule.

Other teams have attempted to book both schedules, running into difficulty on the “plan B” schedule when hotels have asked for non-refundable deposits, sometimes for up to 50 room reservations. One Eastern Conference team has sought clauses in its road hotel contracts in case it needs to move the dates for the second schedule; in at least one case, the hotel agreed only if it had a “right of first refusal” on the rescheduled dates due to occupancy concerns.

There’s an impact on local broadcasters, too. Most regional sports networks carry multiple teams, including the local NHL and NBA franchises if it’s a multi-arena team town. The RSNs have been reaching out to teams asking about Olympic participation, asking about the final decision.

As it is every season, the regular-season schedule is a juggling act. Team executives praised the work of Steve Hatze Petros, who leads the NHL’s team of schedule-makers that piece together an 82-game campaign for each team. They take requests from teams for dates, based on their own building availabilities and requested travel dates. This season was perhaps their greatest challenge in building two parallel schedules.

“This year, every building has so much demand for every date for rescheduled shows,” said a team executive who oversees their arena operations. He said that acts who have been booked at their arena understand that the NHL team is the priority, and that until Olympic participation has been finalized, there’s still a chance that their dates will have to be moved.

While changing schedules could lead to some chaos for teams before the start of the regular season in October, chaos has become the norm for them over the last two seasons. The 2019-20 season was cut short by the COVID pandemic; the 56-game season in 2020-21 was constantly interrupted by sudden postponements due to positive test results.

“If this were three years ago, we’d all be rightfully crying about it. But with all the cancellations and delays we’ve all suffered through over the last 18 months, we’re not that upset about it,” said one NHL team executive. “If you have to change, you change.”