The Athletic does some awesome reporting on issues.
Ironically, this one deals with the thing we talk about constantly in here
As he relaxed in his locker stall following a morning skate last week at Madison Square Garden — about a 25-minute subway ride from Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, a 25-minute drive from Newark’s Prudential Center, and an easy train ride from Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center — I casually asked Jonathan Toews if he ever thought about the differences in travel playing in the Eastern Conference, particularly the New York area, versus the Western Conference, particularly Chicago, the second-easternmost city in the West.
“Yup,” he said sharply, as if he had been waiting for this question all his life. “A lot.”
Toews then beat me to the follow-up.
“And from what I hear,” he continued, “Phoenix is getting added to our division (when Seattle joins the league) and that just makes for a lot of back-to-back games where you’re playing at home and flying there, or vice versa. Yeah. It’s getting out of control.”
It’s easy to see why Toews is frustrated, and a little road-weary. The Blackhawks were in the New York area for the second time in 11 days, having just played the Islanders on Long Island. The Blackhawks left for that trip the day after the Winter Classic. This, after playing in Denver — more than two hours away, with an hour time difference — two days before the Winter Classic. The Winter Classic the Blackhawks were “hosting,” mind you. The Winter Classic the Bruins arrived in South Bend for a full day before the Blackhawks did.
“You don’t have to tell me,” Toews said.
Then there was the quick jaunt to the West Coast for a back-to-back in Anaheim and Las Vegas. There was the home-opener which came at the end of a three-in-four and a back-to-back. There’s the bizarre upcoming road trip that hits three time zones in three games — Buffalo to Minnesota to Edmonton. There are the five trips out to either California or Western Canada, including two weeklong California trips in March. There are the 13 one-off trips, when the team flies to a game and comes straight home.
And let’s not forget one of the most baffling road trips in recent memory, last year over New Year’s, when the Blackhawks went from Vancouver to Edmonton to Calgary to … New York? In fact, there were three trips to the New York area that season, one for each team.
“It’s getting worse (the last two years) for sure,” Toews said. “I’m sure a lot of teams have some tough travel. But from what I’ve gathered, when they go on road trips, they go on road trips. They don’t come and go the way we are. I’m not making excuses, but it takes up a lot of time.”
No one’s going to cry for the Blackhawks, of course, who get paid handsomely and who travel in the ultimate luxury — driven directly from the arena to the tarmac before walking right up the stairs into an all first-class private jet with high-end food options and creature comforts. But sleep is critical for anyone, let alone a professional athlete. And constantly flying deep into the night, getting home at 2 or 3 in the morning with a practice or a game the next day, takes a toll.
And there’s no doubt the Blackhawks’ schedule has been far more frantic the past two seasons — constantly bouncing around the continent as the days and nights and time zones start blurring together.
The circus left town, the United Center opened up in November, and life got a lot more hectic for the Blackhawks.
“I don’t understand how one road trip can make that big of a difference,” Toews said. “Because we’re going back and forth all the time. We went to New York three separate times last year to play three games. We did that trip twice this year. We had that trip last year where we went from Dallas to New Jersey, then home for Christmas, then Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and then to New York on the same road trip. You can’t tell me that’s because of the circus trip.”
Well, it’s not just the circus trip. The ice-show trip — the late January/early February version of the circus trip, when Disney on Ice annually took over the United Center — is a thing of the past, too. Disney sticks around for just a few days now, not a couple of weeks. So in 2014-15, the Blackhawks played 12 games on those two trips, and only had to go out west three times total. The year before that, they played 13 games on those two trips, and only had to go out west those two times. That’s more than a quarter of the road schedule taken care of on two trips.
This year, the Blackhawks’ longest trip is just three games. And they have five such trips. They’ll be home for at least six consecutive days just six times. Last year, it was just three times. In 2016-17? They had eight such homestands.
Toews isn’t wrong. It’s gotten a lot worse.
“It’s true, we’re always bouncing around,” Artem Anisimov said. “Two weeks ago, we were in New York. Then we came right back. It’s easy to do the whole trip in New York, play all the teams and move on.”
Is it, though? I spoke with the NHL’s master scheduler, Steve Hatze Petros, to get a look at how the sausage is made. And it’s messy.
Never mind the few enforcer types that still roam rinks across the league. Hatze Petros might be the most feared man in the hockey world. He’s certainly one the most complained about. For 25 years, he’s been putting together the complex puzzle that is the NHL’s schedule.
“I will tell you this,” he said with a laugh. “Never have I ever heard from any one of our clubs, ‘This is a great schedule.’ And even when I do hear something positive — and I have heard ‘I love you’ from other grown men — as soon as they go on a three- or four-game losing streak the following year, they start complaining about the schedule.”
Hatze Petros has an immense list of factors to consider when he puts together the schedule every year. There’s arena availability — the United Center sometimes hosts more than 200 events a year, only 44 of which are hockey games, not counting the postseason. There are television networks to satisfy on either side of the border — the Blackhawks might be at the bottom of the standings, but they remain at the top of NBC Sports’ wishlist. There are financial considerations — some teams all but beg for more weekend games because they struggle to sell tickets on a Monday night, leading to more of the dreaded back-to-backs for everybody.
Hatze Petros, like the Godfather on the day of his daughter’s wedding, hears everyone out. He tries to visit one division’s worth of teams a year, meeting not just with general managers but ticket-sales personnel and food-and-beverage people. He answers all phone calls and emails. He seeks input from players on All-Star weekend. And when he attends a general managers’ meeting, he’s usually under siege the whole time.
“I won’t call it attacking, but they’d be all over me,” Hatze Petros said. “So unless I’m on the agenda for something specific, I don’t attend those meetings.”
Some teams want to be in certain cities at certain times of the year. Some teams desperately want to play at home the night before Thanksgiving, a hard-partying night when all the college kids are home. Some coaches, particularly new ones, sheepishly ask if they get to be on Hockey Night in Canada, then light up when Hatze Petros tells them they will.
“I’ve had GMs tell me, ‘I want to play non-playoff teams in the first part of the season’,” he said. “I tell them, if you can predict to me the teams that aren’t going to be in the playoffs next year, tell me who they are and I’ll schedule it. They each have their own idiosyncrasies. I get to know them over time; I’ve been doing this for quite a long time. When it’s close to done, I’m looking at the schedule and I’m not cringing, but I know what I’m going to hear from Stan Bowman.”
Some GMs are more combative than others. One league source said Bowman isn’t among the more aggressive ones, opting to pick his battles — which can lead to screwy sequences like the one around the Winter Classic this year — whereas veteran GM Lou Lamoriello, now with the Islanders, will fight tooth and nail for every advantage. Either way, nobody ever seems happy.
The first draft of the schedule that most teams see typically has about 70 games on it. And if the NHL had a 70-72 game schedule, Hatze Petros said everybody would be pleased. It’s squeezing in the last 10-12 that messes everything up. And it’s usually the three New York games that get wedged in last, because, theoretically, they’re the easiest to schedule.
That game on Long Island right after the Winter Classic wasn’t even on the original schedule, according to Hatze Petros. The first draft, the ones the teams generally receive in March, had the Blackhawks hitting all three New York teams in one fell swoop; that’s why there were two days off between the games against the Devils and Rangers last week. Originally, they were going to face the Islanders the night before the Rangers. But that meant an extra back-to-back and a three-in-four, while there was a four-day gap between the Winter Classic and the Jan. 6 game in Pittsburgh.
So Hatze Petros swapped out the Islanders game.
“It uncluttered things,” he said. “A four-game week became a three-game week.”
It’s debatable whether that made things better for the Blackhawks — they lost all three games. But it did mean an extra trip, and another four hours or so in an airplane.
This year, the Blackhawks lobbied to knock out all three Eastern Canada games — Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa — on the same trip. They didn’t get their wish. They opened the season in Ottawa and will play Toronto and Montreal in March, with two days off in between.
Hatze Petros typically asks teams for a list of their requests, in the order of how important each request is. And he does his best. But with 31 teams listing several demands each year, you can’t always get what you want.
Still, that doesn’t explain the Blackhawks’ particularly quirky schedule this season. Just because the circus doesn’t come to the United Center anymore doesn’t mean the Blackhawks can’t still knock out all the Western Canada and California teams in one or two long trips, rather than five shorter ones, right? Well, it turns out there are even more factors to consider. With the All-Star break and the bye week (a relatively new addition which only further compacts the scheduling) followed by the bizarre Buffalo-Minnesota-Edmonton trip, there will be 15 consecutive days without a game at the United Center. So that home game against Vancouver on Feb. 7 became “imperative,” according to Hatze Petros.
Sure, he could have stretched out the road trip and ticked off a few more West Coast teams. That’s what the players probably would prefer. But it’s not what the organization would prefer.
“It’s more efficient that way, but is it good for the fans?” Hatze Petros said.
And let’s not pretend the Blackhawks’ schedule was perfect when it included the circus and ice-show trips. In 2014-15, they played in Ottawa on a Thursday, Toronto on Saturday, came home to host Winnipeg on Sunday, then went right back to Montreal for a game on Tuesday. It was mind-boggling. That same year, they had the Devils and Islanders on the same trip, but with a flight to Boston in between.
See, everyone gets screwed every year. So it’s Hatze Petros’ job to make sure everyone gets screwed equally. For example, the standard California swing starts in San Jose, then features a back-to-back in Los Angeles and Anaheim, because there’s no travel involved. But every year, some teams have to play in L.A., then go up to San Jose, then go back down to Anaheim.
“That’s not ideal for travel,” Hatze Petros admitted. “But it follows that the next year, we’ll go back to give them the better way. It’s about being fair over a long period of time.
“It’s a puzzle,” he continued. “And there are a lot of masters we have to satisfy.”
Anisimov knows how the other half lives. Because he lived it. Breaking into the NHL with the Rangers, Anisimov was utterly spoiled by the most player-friendly schedule in the league. The Rangers, Islanders and Devils have a built-in advantage that no other team can boast.
His rookie season of 2009-10, the Rangers played six road games against the Islanders and the Devils. Those are basically home games — each player is picked up at his house or apartment by a car service and is taken to the morning skate. They get day rooms at a local hotel for their pregame naps, then are back in their own beds that night. The Rangers played three other games in Philadelphia, a quick train ride away. They played 14 games in Washington, Pittsburgh, Boston, Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa — all of which are within an hour by plane. They made one three-game trip to California, and one three-game trip to Western Canada.
That’s dozens and dozens of hours of sleep and relaxation that Western Conference players never get. Put it this way, the 8 p.m. Eastern time start for division road games wasn’t the only reason the Red Wings wanted so badly to move to the Eastern Conference nearly six years ago.
“It’s so much easier,” Anisimov said. “It’s a big advantage, it’s true. You don’t spend so much time at airports and on planes.”
Now a veteran of the Western Conference, Anisimov said the difference in sleep is noticeable — especially when yo-yoing back and forth from Chicago to other cities for a night or two at a time.
“You need sleep to recover,” he said. “Sleeping on a plane is not the same as in your own bed.”
It’s not just the New York-area teams that have an edge. The entire Eastern Conference is more player-friendly. Marcus Kruger got a taste of it last season with the Carolina Hurricanes. Sure, the West Coast flights are extra long — Kruger said the team plane once had to stop for gas on the way from Raleigh to Vancouver — and the three-hour time difference is a factor, but you only have to make those trips once or twice a year.
“You’re home a little bit more in the East,” Kruger said. “The biggest thing is the sleep. We’re really lucky here (in Chicago), they take good care of us and make sure we get the right amount of sleep. We get home fast after games. Sometimes we choose to stay over on the West Coast and that helps, too. But it can be a challenge.”
It’s a challenge the Blackhawks simply have to deal with. The circus isn’t coming back, so this more frenetic, travel-heavy schedule is going to be the new normal. Toews said he hopes the players can make their voices heard to ensure a more competitively balanced travel schedule, and Hatze Petros is always listening.
But as one of the easternmost teams in the Western Conference, as one of the most heavily leaned-on teams in terms of national television, as one of the most sought-after weekend opponents for attendance-starved teams, it’s unlikely to get much easier anytime soon. In fact, it’s only going to get worse. The Coyotes are coming.
“I’m not going to cry about it, because I’m sure other teams deal with it,” Toews said. “But there’s no doubt it’s been different the last couple years. We talk about it a little bit (in the room), but that’s about it. I mean, what else can you do?”