NHL realignment destined to fuel rivalries - and the fan base

When the Atlanta Thrashers became the Winnipeg Jets over the summer, the move precipitated the biggest NHL realignment in 15 years. The owners' vote Monday aims for a fan-friendly league that emphasizes hockey's old rivalries.

By , Staff writer

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    Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby (87) can't get his stick on a rebounding puck in front of Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas (r.) in the first period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh Monday, Dec. 5. Crosby, the league's biggest star, gave a thumbs up to the radical NHL realignment in a bid to grow hockey fan base.
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When the Atlanta Thrashers ignominiously left the Deep South this summer to take up residency in chilly Winnipeg, Manitoba, players and owners knew the NHL's two-conference, six-division layout would need some tweaks.

Instead, the owners, in a 26-to-4 vote at the board of governors meeting at Pebble Beach, Calif., broke a carton of eggs and made a new omelet, leaving a few teams – especially the two Florida franchises – a bit sore, but securing the wishes of a contingent of fans, players, and commentators whom ex-coach Mike Keenan called the “rivalry geeks."

The radical NHL realignment into four regional conferences – no more will Nashville Predators fly regularly to Los Angeles for interconference games – is part of the post-1994 lockout revamp that is more fan-friendly but that often sets grizzled veterans of the game to grumbling. Post-lockout rule changes – such as resolving tied games with shootouts, bolstering the size of the offensive zones, and limiting goalie movement – have all helped to grow the once-anemic NHL fan base and to allow the league to sign a major 10-year deal with NBC Sports for broadcasting rights.

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The realignment continues that trend by bolstering longtime rivalries – Pittsburgh versus Philadelphia, for example, or Original Six matchups like Boston against Toronto – by mandating six meetings a year among teams within a conference. It also requires so-called home-and-home matchups, which mean each team will visit every NHL city at least once in a season?, giving far-flung fans the opportunity to see the league's biggest stars in person every year.

The as-yet-unnamed conferences are as follows:

•L.A. Kings, Anaheim Ducks, San Jose, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Colorado, and Phoenix.

Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Minnesota, Nashville, Columbus, Winnipeg, and Dallas.

•Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Boston, Buffalo, Florida, and Tampa Bay.

•Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey, Washington, and Carolina.

In September, league owners seemed to back a slight modification, making room for the new Winnipeg Jets in the West by, for example, moving the Detroit Red Wings from the Western Conference to the Eastern. But NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Monday the juggling was actually more complicated than it appeared, giving rise to discussion about a complete makeover.

“We had a number of clubs that were unhappy with the current state of affairs, and in the context of having to make a change anyway felt it was important for their needs and their concerns and their issues to be recognized. It was intended to be as much a global solution as possible," Mr. Bettman said Monday night.

To get the deal approved, Eastern teams – especially the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning – had to concede to more travel to ease the at-times outrageous travel demands of some of the Western Conference teams, which regularly cross multiple time zones to play, affecting fans of teams like Dallas and Detroit, who often saw games starting at 10:30 p.m. local time.

The NHL Players Association, which doesn't get a formal vote on the realignment, has raised several concerns, specifically that two of the conferences will have eight teams and two others only seven. While that leaves room for potential league expansion, it means giving teams in the seven-team conferences a slight advantage as they vie to become one of four teams from each conference to make the playoffs.

But the plan did get the thumbs-up from the league's biggest star, Sid “The Kid” Crosby, captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"In the playoffs you don't really need any extra incentive, but I think, if anything, it might add a little more excitement for the fans," Mr. Crosby said after his team's 3-1 loss against the Boston Bruins Monday. "They're more familiar with the teams and the matchups and that kind of thing, but I don't think as far as rivalries peak, as far as if we're talking teams we call rivals, I don't think it can get any bigger than it already is, but I think it's nice for people to see those matchups."

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