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NHL should beat NBA to midseason tournament punch

A Canadiens-Bruins midseason tournament game with something meaningful on the line could inject some real excitement into the dog days of the NHL season. Photo:

A Canadiens-Bruins midseason tournament game with something meaningful on the line could inject some real excitement into the dog days of the NHL season.

You have to give the NHL credit. The league has been all about the big idea during the past decade. From its aggressive early adoption of social media to flashy concepts like the Winter Classic or the involvement with HBO's 24/7 series, the NHL has proved to be the most creative and flexible pro sports league in North America.

But now the NBA is thinking about doing it one better.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver revealed recently that the league's Board of Governors is considering a mid-season tournament to add some zest to the schedule.

“As one of our general managers said at the meeting, there’s very few things that you can win in the NBA,” Silver said. “I mean, when you think about European soccer, for example, they have the FA Cup and they have other tournaments throughout the season.”

The creation of a significant season prize to complement a playoff championship? Now that's bold.

At this point the NBA is strictly in the exploratory phase, asking questions via its fan forum and weighing a wide variety of blue-sky options. None of this talk means the league is going to travel down that road any time soon, if ever. But when you're trying to stake your claim to a bigger slice of an overcrowded sports marketplace, you've got to be receptive to new ideas. And the NBA has a beauty here, the best pro sports concept since the NHL decided to take its game outdoors. Maybe even better.

So, what would it look like? At this point, everything is up in the air as the NBA tries to massage the idea into a manageable concept, but these are among the possibilities the league is considering:

* It would take place in January or February.

* The format would be a single-elimination, March Madness-style tournament that could be scheduled over several weeks, or played over a short, defined period.

* The winner could earn, among other prizes, a guaranteed spot in the playoffs, a seeding reward such as home court advantage, or a bonus cash award for the team and its players.

* It could involve the entire league, the top or bottom 16 teams, or any other permutation. They're also entertaining the thought of inviting top international teams.

The NHL could use or discard any of those elements, but that last one seems like the real hook for a sport that's always loved some international intrigue. A Boston-Montreal single-elimination game would make for brilliant TV, but think of the marketing possibilities that would go along with involving the top clubs from Russia, Sweden, Finland or Germany. Imagine a match-up of Ilya Kovalchuk and SKA St. Petersburg and the New Jersey Devils. Or the Maple Leafs against William Nylander and MoDo. Or Teemu Selanne's Jokerit against the Anaheim Ducks.

That last one requires a bit more speculative elasticity than the others, but you get the idea.

Of course, they'd have to offer something more than another piece of hardware (maybe a re-purposed Victoria Cup?) to hoist in order to really grease the wheels. The NBA's playoff idea should be left on the brainstorming white board, but what about granting the winner a boost up the draft order by, say, five or 10 places? Or how about a bonus pick at the end of the first round? If all else fails to impress, just make the reward what everyone's looking for: a nice fat bonus check.

And it should be easy to write a few of those. Imagine what TSN, shut out of NHL hockey by the recent Rogers Communications deal, might ante up for premium programming like this?  It not only adds must-watch flair to the dog days of the season, it puts more money into the hockey related revenue pot.

That should make it a pretty easy sell to owners and players. Sure, there'd be significant hurdles to leap. Scheduling, for instance. The regular season's already too long in the eyes of most, but as the 2014 Olympics proved, the league can be surprisingly flexible when there's a compelling marketing opportunity to accommodate.

The proposed time frame already features the All-Star Game, and while some fans/media/hockey people wouldn't mind seeing that tired showcase put to bed, it's one tough bird to kill. It serves as the league's premier opportunity to schmooze its corporate sponsors and it's a plum to franchises that are looking to energize a fan base. But maybe the weekend becomes a bit more compelling if the tournament final is held in conjunction with the All-Star Game. Or maybe the All-Star Game is left as is and the tournament climax creates another destination weekend. Think the 17,500 seat MGM-AEG arena currently under construction in Las Vegas might work as the annual home for a Final Four-style event?

There'll be the usual concerns about injuries and exhaustion, but financial interests have always trumped them in the past. And they will again. Executed properly, this could create a massive revenue influx. And not just TV money, either. Think special Victoria Cup jerseys—with ads, maybe?—and all the other ancillary marketing opportunities. Together, they might generate enough to convince the league to scratch a game or two off the regular season schedule.

Ultimately, a tournament concept would come down to whether the inconveniences are outweighed by the opportunity to grow the business. And Gary Bettman rarely whiffs on those.

"Our objective was, and always is, to make a great game even greater, to give our fans the best sports experience and entertainment possible and the best opportunities to connect with our game," Bettman said during the 2014 Stanley Cup Final. "Our plan is to continue to find innovative ways to further increase our game's growth and momentum."

You want innovative? Here it is.

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