Scott Stinson: It isn't even Groundhog Day yet, but the NHL season feels awfully repetitive

The practical realities of this arrangement, 'our tiny little league here', are settling in. A tiny league is, in fact, tiny

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Here is a brief review of the National Hockey League’s pandemic-altered season so far: Too much pizza.

Now, I like pizza. It wouldn’t be my death-row last meal, but if I had to pick a food that I most enjoy as a guilty pleasure and would be deeply saddened to never be able to have again, that’s what I’d choose: Pizza. Pizza good.

NHL games between two Canadian teams? Also good. In normal times, these fall into two categories. There are the heated regional rivalries like Calgary-Edmonton and Toronto-Ottawa, which naturally carry a bit of extra juice, and then there are the other matchups, where the two teams don’t necessarily have anything distinct between them other than they are both Canadian. But even there, it’s a different type of game. There are bound to be some bonus local connections among players and staff, the TV networks get the benefit of an all-Canadian audience, and a fan in Winnipeg can hope to seize bragging rights over, say, her cousin in Vancouver. All fun. A little break from what can become the monotony of an NHL regular season. A nice pizza amid the usual run of meals.

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But, two weeks into Hockey Is Back, and all this pizza is getting to be a little much.

Instead of a rare treat, the all-Canadian matchups already feel relentless. This is, obviously, very much a matter of personal taste, but I admit I’m surprised by how much I preferred the rhythms of a normal schedule over the North Division — sorry, the Scotiabank North Division — in which this country’s seven teams are toiling for 56 games and two playoff rounds before one team finally emerges to play one based in the United States.

There was an undeniable romance to the idea. Hockey was our game, and American influence over it has plainly grown in recent decades, from the departures of the Nordiques and Jets more than 25 years ago to the expansion in the American south to the fact that the NHL does things like schedule playoff games on Sunday afternoons instead of Saturday nights. It also doesn’t help that no Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup since 1993. At the risk of turning this into a Tim Hortons ad, there’s a connection between hockey and Canada that doesn’t broadly exist in the United States, where NHL playoff games still appear on cable channels that many Americans either do not have or do not know they have. If this was a romantic comedy, the NHL would have dumped Canada for the United States before realizing in the final act that it was Canada who really loved it all along.

And so, there was a charm to this pandemic realignment, where Canada would just get to do its own thing for a while, hockey hotbed versus hotbed, a throwback to the Smythe Division, plus Ontario and Quebec. Paul Maurice, coach of the Jets 2.0, explained the sentiment nicely when he called it “our tiny little league here,” one where the passions for the sport run hottest.

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The practical realities of this arrangement, though, are already settling in. A tiny league is, in fact, tiny. The nightly matchups include repeats of the matchups from a night earlier. Next week’s schedule looks a lot like this week’s schedule. And there are another three-plus months of this to go. On Tuesday night, one of the Sportsnet hosts teased the Wednesday Night Hockey game between Ottawa and Vancouver. “This will be fun,” he said, and I thought immediately: Will it? The Canucks had beaten the Senators 7-1 a night earlier. They beat them 5-1 on Wednesday. Viewers could be forgiven for wondering if they had stumbled across a recording instead of a live event.

As the plans for this season began to take shape, it was often said that the North Division would be an absolute boon for Canada’s two sports networks, given that every game between a Canadian team would also involve another Canadian team. But local blackouts are still in effect and meanwhile the national rights holders now have a huge inventory of games that do not involve a Canadian team. On Tuesday night, there were 13 games on a packed NHL schedule. Two of them involved Canadian teams. This effect has been particularly pronounced on Saturdays, where Sportsnet used to be able to spread the Canadian teams playing on Hockey Night in Canada across many Rogers properties, plus the CBC. Last Saturday there was one early and one late all-Canadian matchup, and the rest of the would-be HNIC lineup was bereft of local content. In order to make this work, Winnipeg is sometimes given the late slot, which is weird for a city in the Central time zone. This coming Saturday, Canucks at Jets is the late game, appearing on CBC, all the Sportsnets, SN360, City, Omni, and presumably a couple other Rogers channels that I missed while browsing the guide. This is not what the Rogers honchos had in mind when they talked about leveraging NHL content across their many platforms.

(The lack of variety with small numbers of teams is also true of the other three divisions, but they don’t even get the benefit of the gauzy all-Canada idealism.)

None of this is to say that the NHL erred in designing the schedule the way it did for this season. Given the pandemic, and border issues, it did what it could to craft a season out of a mess that was beyond its control. But this has to be a one-season deal. Please. By the late spring, I’m going to be utterly tired of pizza.

Postmedia News

sstinson@postmedia.com

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