By Jason Menard
You’re almost there, Gary. Winnipeg’s back, Quebec City may be on its way, and the National Hockey League’s realignment of teams into (relatively sensible) geographic regions has earned the league much praise. But one cosmetic change could make this realignment a historic success.
And that’s by embracing the league’s history.
In 1992, in an attempt to simplify the game to appeal to emerging American markets, commissioner Gary Bettman drew upon his NBA roots and renamed the conferences by geographic designations. In 2013, the league should move back.
The NHL is moving back to a four-conference format: two in the west and two in the east. For the sake of clarity (and sanity), I’m going to refer to these four conferences as divisions, within two conferences.
Let’s start with the two conferences. East and West is so 90s (and so NBA). Back in the day, we had the Prince of Wales and (Clarence) Campbell conferences. The former was initially donated for the winner of the winner of the first game in Madison Square Garden; the latter to recognize the commissioner responsible for the league’s most vital expansion in the 1960s.
But now it’s time to move forward, embrace the opportunity, and seize a wonderful opportunity to tie today’s game to even more of the historical greats who have continued to shape it. So let’s name the conferences after two people who truly revolutionized the game: Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr.
The Western conference is a perfect fit for the Gretzky handle. Beyond playing the majority of his career in the west, one can make an easy argument that Canada’s Great One is the reason why hockey exists not only in Los Angeles, but in markets like San Jose, Anaheim, Phoenix, and even Dallas. The 1988 trade that ripped out Canada’s soul served to jump start the heartbeat of the game in non-traditional American markets.
Bobby Orr changed the way defense was played. Plain and simple. While other blueliners, such as Doug Harvey, were innovators in creating an offensive game from the defensive position, it was Orr who became — and remains — the gold standard of the position.
While an argument can be made to reinstate the old Adams, Norris, Patrick, and Smythe division nomenclature, I’d propose handing out trophies to the regular season divisional (I’m still not calling them conferences…) leaders, bearing those builders’ names.
Not only are the players named in these proposed divisions elite, but they’re also iconic representatives of key demographics of the hockey community.
The Howe Division: Gordie is Mr. Hockey (trust me, he’s trademarked it). Often considered in the discussion as the greatest player ever, Howe holds several NHL records, including longevity-based ones, and he’s still amongst the league’s scoring leaders.
The Baker Division: Hobie Baker was arguably hockey’s first American star and he was a part of the league’s inaugural Hall of Fame class. Baker perished in a First World War airplane accident and is currently commemorated by collegiate hockey’s highest individual honour.
The Beliveau Division: Beyond the obvious impact that the province of Quebec has had on hockey’s history, Jean Beliveau represents the elegance, grace, and class of hockey and leadership at its finest. With Maurice Richard already commemorated with the league’s leading goal-scorer’s trophy.
The Tretiak Division: Finally, the fourth division should be named after Vladislav Tretiak. While Anatoly Tarasov was the father of Russian hockey, it was Tretiak who revolutionized the game — and the goaltending position — was played, including developing an early version of the butterfly style. Although he never played in the NHL himself, his involvement in the USSR hockey program at the height of the Canada/Russia rivalry helped bridged cultural gaps and paved the way for the arrival of Europeans in the NHL en masse.
In addition to the initial divisional namesakes, one could argue that players like the Stastny brothers, who were the highest-profile defectors back in the day; Willie O’Ree, who broke hockey’s colour barrier; and Jacques Plante, who was a technological innovator between the pipes, could take the place of any of the four I’ve chosen.
That’s the point.
One of the greatest things about hockey is its history. It’s something that ties us not only to fans around the world, but also to our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. The arguments we make for Sidney Crosby today are echoes of those made for Joe Malone a century ago. The debate alone is worth consideration.
But the moment a child scans the NHL’s standings and asks his or her parents, “Who’s Beliveau?” then we’ve brought our great game’s history to life.
And that would be a historic success.