Balancing Act

An Inside Look At The Daunting Task Of Making The NHL’s Yearly Schedule

High above the bustling New York City streets, on the 15th floor of a high rise located on the Avenue of the Americas, sits the home of the National Hockey League. Inside one of its many office spaces, Steve Hatze-Petros peers into the future. In front of him is a grid as hectic and confusing as the traffic-congested streets below.

As the senior vice president of NHL Scheduling & Broadcasting, Hatze-Petros is the architect of the league's yearly schedule, featuring 1,271 regular-season games that considers a million variables before it is released to the public  with great fanfare around the third week of June.

It's a multi-step process that factors in requests from the league's 31 teams, the wishes of broadcasting partners, weather patterns and what's going on with the other sports leagues, such as the NBA, which share a number of facilities around the country.

The scheduling process has come a long way since the days that games were shuffled around by hand on magnetic boards like a multi-deck Blackjack dealer. As the NHL has grown, so too have the assets at the disposal of Hatze-Petros and his crew tasked with constructing the schedule. The league works with a Swedish company to automate the schedule through a module approach. 

It all starts with the NHL sending out a memo to its 31 teams, detailing the parameters of the upcoming year and requesting they submit their wish list of available dates for the following season. 

Once collected, the next step is coordinating road trips with preference going to teams from the most remote locations, such as Vancouver and San Jose in the west and Florida and Tampa Bay in the east.

"You want to hit all the eastern or western Canadian teams at the same time," Hatze-Petros said. "If any east coast team goes to visit San Jose, it's imperative that they play Los Angeles and Anaheim as well. And coming to New York from the west you want to hit all New York-based teams."

Nationally-televised games also take a high priority. Communicating with NBC in the U.S. and Sportsnet in Canada, they look into matchups for NBCSN's Wednesday Night Hockey or Sportsnet's Hockey Night in Canada.

"We try to do what's in the [rightsholders'] best interests, but also what's best for our fans and our clubs," Hatze-Petros said. "We continually try to push exposure for all of our clubs. At the same time, you're also looking at growing ratings."

Next comes preferred dates and scheduling around the holidays. Clubs are given an official first draft about a month before the schedule is released. That's when the real fun begins, as teams try to negotiate their respective schedules.

"Clubs look for an additional weekend date, one less back-to-back, tweaking road trips," Hatze-Petros said. "That's very tough to automate because you have 31 different requests, from 31 different teams."

Since the NHL is not the only show in town, concert schedules and other events such as ice shows and rodeos can also wreak havoc on future plans. If there's an ice show in San Jose in the middle of February, that may be a good time to send the Sharks on an east coast swing, and having the other west coast teams come along as a means of maximizing games and minimizing travel.

The league keeps track of flight miles and back-to-back games, and will make alterations if there are outliers above or below the average. 

The addition of a team in Seattle will add another team out west starting with the 2021-22 season, pushing the number of clubs to 32. The expansion will force some scheduling logistics to be altered, such as the number of intra-division and intra-conference games. It'll also force teams to take an extra trip out west.

The intricacies of filling out the NHL's schedule might be the most daunting out of any of the professional sports leagues, but each of them has their own challenges.

"The NBA is probably the closest to the NHL because of the number of the teams, number of games and we're in a lot of the same buildings. They're the guys that we would meet with most of the time," Hatze-Petros said. 

"The MLB is quirky, they have their own issues. They might not have issues of arenas or stadiums that aren't available, but they also have to worry about days off and travel, they've got their rain outs and it's pretty challenging for them as well. 

"The NFL, it's easy to look at and say they only have 16 games, but let's not forget that each of their games is scheduled for national TV and they have a bunch of partners out there, so you can imagine the tug and pull that goes on with which teams and games are exposed on which networks."

By the time the puck drops on the current season, Hatze-Petros is already working on next season's schedule with one key thought in mind. 

"Our goal is to make our schedule as fan friendly as possible," he said. 

 

Issue: 
2019-10

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