That lo-o-n-g season on the ice

Make way for the longest season in sports -- and a new look. The National Hockey League has opened its season amid the baseball play-offs and will still be skating when baseball begins again in the spring.

Borrowing a page from baseball, among other sports, the NHL has realigned itself geographically and unbalanced its schedule, to cut down on costly travel and encourage rivalries.

An immediate byproduct should be a better balance of competition. All four divisions display the potential for spirited races.

Divisional opponents will play each other eight times under the new format, meeting the teams outside their division three times each.

That should engender new rivalries and such older ones as Boston-Montreal and New York Rangers-New York Islanders.

The latter may not be able to stand much more intensifying, however. Two recent exhibition games between the Rangers and Islanders both disintegrated into four-alarm brawling. (The NHL may be showing a more enlightened attitude toward scheduling, but it is doing nothing to put an end to the barbaric fighting that mars many games.)

Once the 21 teams finish their 80-game schedules, the playoffs will be conducted on a divisional basis, with only five teams eliminated at the onset. The two best teams may well not meet in the Stanley Cup finals now, but at least the regular season should hold interest longer.

No matter how the road to the cup was redesigned, the Islanders would be favored to win it for the third straight season. Only Montreal and Toronto -- twice each -- have made that kind of history in the league's 64 years of operation.

General Manager Bill Torrey and Coach Al Arbour have pieced together a juggernaut so solid they kept the roster virtually intact over the off-season. The Islanders have everything, including youth.

Billy Smith is the best pressure goalie in the game. Bryan Trottier is the best all-around center. Mike Bossy is the best goal scorer. Denis Potvin is the best defenseman. Butch Goring is the best scrambler.

Complementing the awesome phalanx of superstars are diggers and grinders like Bob Nystrom, Wayne Merrick, and Ken Morrow, who know their roles and fulfill them enthusiastically. The versatile Islanders can beat you any way you choose.

In the Patrick Division with them are the Rangers, the rebuilding Philadelphia Flyers, the Washington Capitals, and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The most intriguing question is whether Herb Brooks, who sternly coached the US Olympic team to heroic victories, can shape up the unpredictable Rangers, who are the best-paid collection of athletes anywhere, but don't always play up to the level of their tax shelters.Brooks is installing a European-style offense, and the results during the exhibition season were impressive. The Rangers traded for Mike Rogers, Hartford's leading scorer, the shore up their thin ranks at center. Washington was delighted to sign 18-year-old Bobby Carpenter from Peabody, Mass., the most touted American prospect ever.

The Adams Division, the other half of the Prince of Wales Conference, brings together Montreal, Quebec, Buffalo, Boston, and Hartford.

The Canadiens are counting on their new coach, Bob Berry, and a healthy Guy Lafleur to restore them to preeminence after a humiliating first-round loss in last season's playoffs.

In Buffalo, Scotty Bowman will be back behind the bench, which should help the Sabres. The goaltending of Don Edwards and Bob Sauve is their strong suit.

Rogie Vachon must come through in goal for Boston, where top draft choices Normand Leveille and Barry Pederson should get plenty of ice time on a squad that is heavy with well-worn veterans. Ray Bourque and Brad Park are outstanding on defense, but the offense needs a bigger output from Terry O'Reilly.

The Norris Division consists of Minnesota, a young club that should benefit handsomely from last spring's surprise appearance in the Stanley Cup finals and from the hiring of former Montreal defender Bill Nyrop; St. Louis, with workaholic goalie Mike Liut; Chicago, with the great Tony Esposito in goal; Toronto, Detroit, and Winnipeg, which drafted No. 1 junior Dale Hawerchuk to juice up a sluggish offense.

The Smythe Division will gain the most from realignment, since the West Coast teams won't have to travel nearly as many miles.

Calgary, big and strong, could win it. The Los Angeles Kings boast the highest scoring line in league history: Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor, and Charlie Simmer, Edmonton boasts Wayne Gretzky, who outproduces most lines all by himself and was the league's Most Valuable Player as well as its highest scorer of all time, with 164 points in his second season. The Oilers are building the way the Islanders were five years ago. Colorado and Vancouver are trying to catch up.

If all that background material seems too much to digest at once, don't be in a terrible rush. After all, the season lasts for 30 more weeks.

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