By Jason Menard
With its new realignment plans, the NHL has passed its geography test. But while the A-B-C-Ds of the conference format may satisfy the grammarians out there, if the NHL makes the smart move to embrace its history, not only will they pass the exercise with flying colours, but NHL commissioner Gary Bettman would come out of this with honours.
Instead of taking the easy way out and simply allow the Detroit Red Wings or Columbus Blue Jackets to swap spots with the recently transplanted Winnipeg Jets (who, due to their previous incarnation as the Atlanta Thrashers, are playing in the southeast division), the league performed a comprehensive overhaul of not just its alignment, but also its playoff system.
This is still a work in progress. As it stands now, the top four teams from each conference would make the playoffs. The top team in conference A would play A’s fourth-place; A’s second-place squad would face off against its third-place team, and then the winner of those two series would play in a conference final of sorts.
From there? Who knows? You’re left with four teams remaining (the champions of conferences A, B, C, and D, respectively) and the league has yet to determine how the semi-finals and Stanley Cup finals will be assessed. Personally, I’m all in favour of reseeding the semi-finals – the league’s top remaining team plays the remaining team that finished with the lowest total points. This would encourage all teams to play hard all year – there are no off nights as playoff seeding could be impacted dramatically.
But that’s a discussion for another day. In an attempt to balance out the schedule and minimize travel discrepancies throughout the league, the NHL has created the added benefit of revitalizing rivalries. In fact, although Bettman continues to refer to these as conferences, they’re awfully familiar to those of us who remember the Adams, Norris, Patrick, and Smythe divisions.
Under the old division format, team rivalries grew in the playoffs. As a fan of the Montreal Canadiens, I knew a date with the Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Hartford Whalers, or Quebec Nordiques was on tap. Combined with the familiarity developed during multiple games played against division rivals during the regular season, the stage was set for passionate matches that bordered on hatred. I grew to hate Brass Bonanza and dread its appearance each year.
Rivalries weren’t just geographic; rivalries were built upon the fact that a set number of teams stood in your way along the path to Stanley Cup glory. In short, rivalries mattered.
And while it’s great that the NHL has embraced its history with the return of the division format (sorry Gary, conference), it must go a step further. Conference A, B, C, and D sound amateur: The Richard, Howe, Gretzky, and Orr conferences? What about Plante, Tretiak, Patrick, and Hull? Maybe you put a dozen names on-line and in arenas and let the fans vote – all the while running an education campaign to teach the current generation and new fans why these names are so vital to the game.
In 1992 the league robbed itself of one of its greatest assets by discarding its history in an attempt to dumb down the league for new fans and follow in the footsteps of the NBA. The league’s history was relegated to the NHL’s awards’ night. But here’s a chance to embrace it and update it.
Yes, while some may have issues with a Gretzky division should the Great One become involved with a team again, this wouldn’t be unprecedented. Clarence Campbell was still league president when the trophy bearing his name was dedicated in 1967, and was still in office when the Campbell Conference was christened in 1974.
The names are almost secondary. The debate and discussion are what should matter. If we can’t agree that Wayne is the greatest player in the history of the league, then most can at least concede he’s in the top four. Who else deserves to be honoured? Why? You want to engage with the fans? Spark the debate and then watch it spread throughout social networks, traditional media, and barstools across the country.
Think about the 12-year-old girl who learns about Maurice Richard through this discussion (and, thanks to digital media, she could be watching clips on-line), thus connecting her to her great-grandfather, who was a fan back in the day? The league has a wonderful history and great stories – they need to be shared so that today’s fan can grow an even greater attachment to their league.
Other sports embrace their history – fans of the New York Yankees don’t ignore The Babe or Mickey Mantle; Vince Lombardi’s name is still bandied about Green Bay and the league as a whole. Only basketball (not coincidentally where Bettman got his start) is the only sport that is historically challenged – but even they’re doing a better job of introducing the Bill Russells of the league to today’s generation.
The NHL used to do it – just like they used to have four divisions. Now that the latter’s back, now it’s time to re-embrace its history.