The NHL has an inventory problem. It's not a readily apparent one, if you read the attendance reports for the first month of the season, as it looks like half the league is playing to 100 percent capacity (or more), and that only nine teams are battling it out in front of less than 90 percent of a full building.
However, if you were to go to an actual NHL game in about 20 of the 30 NHL markets during the month of October, chances are that a good chunk of the announced crowd would look conspicuously like an empty seat. For anyone who has spent any amount of time in an NHL press box, NHL attendance accounting is like your strange uncle at the family reunion: Everyone knows something is wrong, but nobody says anything.
In my experience (and I spent 14 of my 17 NHL seasons in "nontraditional" hockey markets), NHL attendance tallies can be anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000 human beings lighter than the actual announced crowd. The issue lies in what constitutes "attendance," as teams tend to count not only the people at the game (whether they paid to be there or not) but will also often include tickets purchased but not used.
By playing hockey in October, the NHL is supplying an entertainment option in two-thirds of its markets where there is not enough demand. It is the equivalent of running an ice cream stand in Minneapolis in the middle of January. It's not that Minnesotans don't like ice cream; they just don't think of it as a refreshing treat option when it is minus-45 degrees out.
The same can be said for the NHL in October. The NFL owns Sundays in the fall. The World Series is a national television event. Saturday is now the almost exclusive domain of college football. The NHL's ice cream stand is trying to do business in a very crowded neighborhood.
If last season's lockout (and return) taught anyone anything, it's that there is a strong, resilient demand for NHL hockey. The key is to match the supply of NHL product to when this demand exists. This is how I would do it.
Start later, run shorter
The NHL should not play regular-season hockey in October. Period. By my guesstimate (and based on my experience), there are about 20 NHL teams that are paying a per-game penalty in the range of $200,000 to $300,000 in lost revenue by playing before Halloween. Using seven games as the average home game inventory for October, that adds up to between $28 million to $42 million in lost revenue opportunity for the league.
My fix: Reduce the season to 74 games and start the season on Nov. 1.