Tips’ grueling stretch exposes flaws in WHL scheduling process

When the Everett Silvertips shuffled off the ice following their Tuesday night game against the Calgary Hitmen at Angel of the Winds Arena, the players can be forgiven if they were just a little more sluggish than usual.

That’s because the Tips had just completed the most grueling section of their schedule, a stretch of eight games in 12 days that included back-to-back three-in-three weekends. The first three of those games came in the span of 46 hours, when Everett had a crazy travel schedule that began with the Tips heading north to play at Kamloops at 7 p.m. Friday, then racing back down south to play the Seattle Thunderbirds in Kent at 7:05 p.m. Saturday, and finally hauling their way back to Kamloops for a 5 p.m. start Sunday.

It’s enough to make one’s head swivel faster than a Denis Savard trademark spin-o-rama move.

But wait a minute. Didn’t the WHL reduce its schedule for the express purpose of preventing things like this?

This season the WHL shortened its schedule from 72 games to 68, with those games played over the same length of time. When the announcement was made in October of 2017, the press release put out by the WHL said the move was made “to reduce travel and balance the schedule while providing more time for players to focus on training and skill development, as well as their academic studies.”

This change was supposed to reduce those logjams of games that overtax young and developing players and increase the risk of injury. Yet here were the Tips playing eight times in 12 days, a condensed flurry of games matched just five times in the franchise’s previous 15 seasons: Feb. 18-29 in 2004, March 9-20 in 2005, Feb. 24-March 5 in 2006, Jan. 4-15 in 2012 and Jan. 11-22 in 2017.

This change was supposed to reduce the number of times teams played three games in three days. Everett has six three-in-threes this year, which is down from the 10 the Tips had last season. However, one has to go back to the 2010-11 season to find another campaign where Everett had more than six three-in-threes, so this year’s number isn’t really less than the norm.

So what the heck happened? Why hasn’t the reduction of the schedule had the desired effect?

The truth is the WHL the schedule-making process is a messy one that sometimes produces results like this.

The way it was explained to me by Zoran Rajcic, the chief operating officer of CSH International Inc, which owns the Tips, is that the schedule is created during a laborious all-day league meeting during the offseason. All 22 teams get together in a room for seven or eight hours to hash out the schedule the best they can.

A handful of games are set in advance, such as teams’ long road trips through the opposing conference. Teams are also allowed to lock a couple rivalry games into place. After that the teams, which come into the meeting knowing which teams they host that season and how many times, take turns calling opponents to play in their arena on specific dates.

It means teams have a limited ability to control their schedules. They’re at the mercy of their own building availability, and they’re at the mercy of opponents who can call a team in for any date, provided both teams are free. I’m told it can be a contentious process, with tempers flaring over calls that create difficult travel situations.

Rajcic gave an example, citing Everett’s Kamloops-Kent-Kamloops weekend: “We scheduled the game with Seattle well before. Kamloops called us on the Friday, and then at the end of it all, when there’s very few dates for them to pick a home date, they figured they had to play us on the Sunday, and it’s their call. It happens. I don’t know if there’s a better way of doing it, but we have 26 weeks, take out a week for Christmas, and you have to get 68 games in. It just ends up that way; there’s no real science behind it.”

The league tried to put some science into it a few years back when it switched to having a computer generate the schedule. However, the league decided the results the computer produced weren’t any better and went back to the old method.

And that method sometimes results in situations Everett had to deal with the past 12 days.

“It’s one of those things you never want,” Rajcic said. “But if you look at what we went through (on the Kamloops-Kent-Kamloops weekend), we got three big wins, the team was responding, there were no injuries, so we’re fortunate from that perspective.”

I’m willing to give the WHL a pass on this occasion. This was the league’s first time implementing the 68-game schedule, and it’s unfair to expect everything to work out perfectly on the first attempt.

But hopefully the league tweaks next season’s scheduling process to lessen the chances of these type of frenetic stretches from happening again. The whole purpose of shortening the schedule was to make life a little bit easier on the players. Let’s make sure it has that effect.

Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.

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