Chicagoans love the Blackhawks and they especially love watching them in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Thursday night's game against the St. Louis Blues was no exception, with Patrick Kane scoring the game-winning goal just three minutes into the second overtime period to keep the Hawks' season alive. But while Kane certainly stole the show with his late-game heroics, Blackhawks announcer Pat Foley caused a stir during the broadcast when he used his platform to issue a spot-on critique of the NHL for scheduling yet another game in this Blues-Blackhawks series to start at 8:30pm Central Time. You can view the video here, but here is a partial transcript:
"Well Eddie, we have had a tremendous series between two great teams here... But this is the third time in five games that a start time of 8:42 local was mandated. I can say with certainty players cannot stand these late starts, coaches cannot stand them, most importantly the fans can't stand them. So as we approach midnight Eastern again, on a work night, a school night, a simple question. An 8:42 puck drop serves who?"
Foley is absolutely right about this. There is no reason the NHL should be scheduling the games in this series as late as they have been. It might be excusable if the Hawks were playing a west coast team and the NHL wanted to compromise a fair start time between the two time zones, but these are two teams in the middle of the country. The fans who live in Chicago and St. Louis shouldn't have to stay up until at least 11pm just to watch the entirety of regulation for a playoff hockey game. It's even worse when the games go to overtime and run as long as last night's matchup.
The scheduling is even more egregious when you consider how the Stanley Cup playoff bracket is currently set up. The second and third team from each division are always matched up with each other in the first round, which is how the Blackhawks and Blues were paired up this year. In the case of the Western Conference's Central division—the division the Hawks play in—every team is located in the Central Time Zone with the exception of the Colorado Avalanche, who are located in the Mountain Time Zone. So why the hell would someone think it's a good idea to have a matchup between two teams on Central Time start at 8:30pm? The NHL should know well ahead of time not to put the games from that part of the playoff bracket in such a late time slot.
One possible reason behind these late starts could be that the NHL and NBC want to be able to make a viewing schedule that allows the entire country the chance to see playoff games in their entirety, especially the ones involving the Blackhawks. One simple (and seemingly obvious) solution would be to stagger the start times and take advantage of the NHL's overflow channels. If the league were to air four games a night, it could start the East Coast games at 6pm CT, then start the West Coast games between 7pm and 8pm CT on other channels. CBS is able to do it with the NCAA Tournament—NBC should be able to do the same with playoff hockey.
Most importantly, late start times really suck for the fans. Chicagoans won't stop watching the Blackhawks just because puck drop is later than we would like (I'm sure people would tune in even if the puck drop was at 3am). But many people work long hours starting early in the morning and simply don't have the energy at the end of the night to watch a four-hour hockey game that begins at 8:30pm. Most parents probably aren't letting their kids stay up until after 11pm to watch a first round playoff game.
It's easy to criticize and say that people should suck it up, be better fans and just watch some late night hockey, but the reality is that this simply isn't feasible for a lot of people. And for a league that is desperately trying to increase its fan base and grow the popularity of its sport, placing their most popular team in a 8:30pm time slot is not going to do them any favors and doesn't, to answer Pat Foley's question, serve anyone.