By Don Scott
For the first time since the 1975-76 season, when the AHL had just eight teams and the Hershey Bears won the Southern Division title, the league conduct a 76-game schedule during the 2011-12 campaign.
That means two less home and two less road games and the loss of eight potential points in the standings, but there is more to the story, as Hershey Bears President/General Manager Doug Yingst explained in a recent interview.
“This process was voted on 10 times over four years to agree on the change that, at one point would’ve had a 72-game schedule,” said Yingst. “We all felt it would take place in 2012-13, no matter what we did because the NHL wanted it. We had a special meeting in Boston where several teams changed their votes and then one GM said it’s going to happen, so why not do it now, so a few more changed their vote and it passed by one vote. Any team that was NHL-owned and operated was an automatic yes.”
Yingst continued: “The reason from a scheduling and player standpoint was to have no more four games-in-five nights, therefore we should see a more energized product,” he said. “We’re hoping to see more energy throughout the league, but outside of that it is status quo. Overall I don’t think from a fan or franchise prospective the two less games will have much of an impact on any of us.”
There was also another change voted on that affected the post-season Yingst said. This one might be more important to examine than the loss of regualr-season games.
“There is a difference in the reduction of seven to five games in the first round of the playoffs,” Yingst said. “The reason for that was to lengthen the schedule and make sure the four-in-five was eliminated, but we prefer the seven-game format.”
This means, based on the travel distance between teams in the first round, the higher seed could only be assured of two home games. Not winning both games means going to the lower seeded site where they would have to win twice to advance, whereas the lower seed would only need one road victory.
“I’m not for the playoff reduction because it’s when you find the players that can play,” said Yingst, “and it doesn’t mean a lot if you’re the higher team and have to play a two-three schedule because of distance, like this year with Charlotte.”
Since New England teams, because they have very few overnight trips, get plenty of time to practice they won’t notice a difference in the additional practice time but the teams that need to travel quite a bit can now have more time for it,” Yingst added. ““Players would rather play than practice because it’s more fun, but practices themselves are more taxing on the body because they require more minutes.”
Then the discussion turned to what the financial ramifications could be for various teams to which the GM replied: “I don’t know if there will be any financial impact on salaries down the road. That’s something that can’t be determined at this time. It won’t have any impact on entry level contracts but it could on AHL contracts since you have to pay the same amount to play fewer games.”
Yingst added: “Hershey and Manitoba are receiving the biggest financial negative impact because a substantial number of teams lose money so they’ll be losing less. It depends where you lose the away games. If it’s a flight, you’re saving quite a bit but I don’t think it is enough to offset the revenue from losing two home games.
“The future will tell us if this is the right move or not. This (schedule) will be in place for two years when it will be discussed again at which time there will be three options; stay the same, go back to 80 or reduce more.”
For the past five seasons Hershey has led the AHL in total attendance, setting an all-time record of 392,005 this past year that will be extremely difficult to match, Yingst pointed out. But there is still the possibility of beating one record.
“From a fan perspective, our fans have been able to set records here at Giant Center that probably will not be broken, but the record that could be broken would be the per-game average,” he said. “The whole dynamics, as far as wins and points, will also change just like it did when we went to the shootout. It used to be 40 wins and 80 points guaranteed you the playoffs then the shootout changed those numbers.”
When approached about his thoughts on the revised schedule, Hershey coach Mark French answered: “From a league standpoint, less games transfers into less travel costs, maybe a few more practices and less four-in-fives but I’m not sure it will play a huge role other than that.
“The biggest thing is looking at what is best for development,’ added French. “Every team has a different opinion on what might be best for them. Our situation with the big crowds makes it a good atmosphere for us and the visiting teams to play in, so the more you play in those conditions the better it is for the players and the league.”