For the first time in 62 years, there is a genuine possibility that the almost interminable National Hockey League regular season will be reduced.
The Washington Capitals, with other United States teams as allies, will propose to the NHL board of governors next week that each team play only 76 games during the 1981-82 season, rather than the present 80.
Such a reduction, previously proposed by the players association but historically shunned since the unceasing buildup began from the 18-game schedules of 1918-19, is certain to be opposed by those clubs that automatically sell out every home game. However, the other issues to be discussed at the meetings Monday through Wednesday in Palm Beach, Fla., offer considerable opportunity for political log-rolling.
Realignment, scheduling and the playoff, format are listed on the agenda. Although only a majority vote is required to implement a realignment plan, two-thirds approval is needed on any formula that affects the playoffs and any realignment proposal necessarily would alter the current playoff setup, under which 16 of the league's 21 teams qualify for postseason play.
There are almost as many proposals in each area as there are teams, with some clubs advocating a do-nothing approach for a few years, until the future of potential expansion applicants and current shaky franchises is determined.
However, the Capitals are one of many teams that want action now. They seek an end to the current balanced schedule, in which each of the 21 teams plays every opponent four times, and an emphasis on intradivisional or intraconference play, reducing travel as much as possible.
Presently, the Capitals are in the Patrick Division with Philadelphia, Calgary and the two New York teams. Under a regional format. Pittsburgh would become a logical replacement for Calgary, with the Flames moving into a western grouping. Another sensible division, would encompass Boston, Hartford, Buffalo, Montreal and Quebec, and that and the Patrick quintet would make a cozy conference.
Obviously, in an unbalanced-schedule situation, the Capitals would face competitive problems in more fequent meetings against the Flyers and Islanders. Nevertheless, Washington is willing to accept a reduction in the number of playoff teams to 12.
"Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup," said Peter O'Malley, who will represent the Capitals in Palm Beach. "Our goal is not just to make the playoffs, and looking for an easy division to insure the playoffs everyyear is not what we're after. We want to prepare to win the Cup by playing tough teams."
O'Malley was one of the key figures in effecting the compromises that resulted in the 1979 merger with the World Hockey Association. Although the divisive stances of so many owners would appear to preclude resolution of the realignment problem, O'Malley beleives that compromise can do the job again.
"We have dealt with the situation by topic, rather than by team," O'Malley said. "We're trying to do what is best for the sport. I think we can work out fair tradeouts. There is a rhythm to the league meetings now. We get the outlandish proposals early and then we get down to business on something more practical."
Although O'Malley is too much the diplomat to say so, he apparently considers "outlandish" the idea of Toronto owner Harold Ballard, presented at an unoficial meeting of Canadian owners in October, to implement a Canadian division, with Buffalo and possibly Detroit added, and the devil take everyone else.
"They don't seem to consider the Canadians or to appreciate the fact it's a Canadian game," Ballard said of the American owners. "My feeling and my wish is that if we can get another team in Canada (possibly Hamilton), we could have two divisions and a hell of a league and we'll play them (the U.S. winner) for the Stanley Cup."
Ballard has gotten some support, but Irving Grundman, the Montreal Canadiens' managing director and a do-nothing advocate, noted that, "If geography and travel costs are a factor in realignment, I can't see a Canadian division."
O'Malley thinks a potential for compromise exists in assigning all the Canadian teams to the same conference, along with some American geographical neighbors, and placing scheduling emphasis within the conference, rather than just the division, as was tried in 1978-79.
"What we are proposing are eastern and western conferences, playing four at home and four away against each division rival and three and three against the rest of the conference," O'Malley said. "If it became necessary to reduce it to three-three within the division so everybody else would come in at least once, we would be agreeable.
"The key in realignment should be to develop more intense rivalries, to play natural rivals more times than is possible with a balanced schedule. We are seeking the tightest possible territorial alignment to develop rivalries, to make it easier physically on the players, and to reduce our soaring travel costs by making fewer long trips.
"Abe Pollin wants to maintain the significance of the regular season and we think it would be beneficial to start the season two weeks later, to get completely clear of baseball, and to reduce the number of games from 80 to 76." c
O'malley considers a reduction to 12 playoff teams "possible, not probable. Some teams that expected earlier to be in the top eight will be going to Florida in the 13-to-16 range and they are likely to alter their opinions from that vantage point."
The Capitals no longer think in terms of 13 and below.