Whereas last Sunday’s exhilarating match between the Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings was a grand advertisement for the National Hockey League, it also served as a reminder that those adversaries will be meeting infrequently come next October.
According to a realignment plan just approved by the Players Association, the Red Wings will move to a newly sculpted Eastern Conference, thereby reducing to two their allotment of regular-season games against the Blackhawks.
While many fans here are sorry in advance about revisions to the rivalry, we suggest that the upside of the overhaul is significant: All 16 members of the Eastern Conference will play a home-and-home with the 14 franchises in the Western Conference.
Thus, Original Six and other marquee teams such as the Pittsburgh Penguins shall visit the United Center. Sightings of the aforementioned have been too few in recent winters. The Blackhawks and Montreal Canadiens, who used to meet 14 times each year way back when, have played 555 games—but only six of them have occurred since the NHL returned from the lost season of 2004-5.
As for the Blackhawks bidding adieu to the only remaining Original Six opponent in the Western Conference, the separation is not without precedent. In 1970-71, when the NHL expanded from 12 to 14 teams, the Blackhawks left all five ancient foes behind midst much wringing of hands and transferred to the West, and nobody died. In fact, the dramatic facelift precipitated different grudges. Before too long, Stadium fans learned to boo the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota North Stars.
“Chicago was a natural rival for us,” recalled Scotty Bowman, the Blackhawks’ Hall of Fame Senior Advisor who coached the Blues when the NHL grew to 12 teams in 1967. “There was the geographic factor, both cities being close to each other. Plus the rivalry in other sports, like Cubs and Cardinals, carried over to hockey. Also, we drafted Glenn Hall from the Blackhawks, and he put hockey on the map in St. Louis. Chicago was always the biggest draw in our building, and over time the two teams have developed quite a thing between them.
“What really makes rivalries are playoff series, I believe. If you have a couple of tough and emotional series during the playoffs, you can get a rivalry going pretty quickly. We got knocked out by Phoenix last year. If we wind up against the Coyotes again this spring, you’ll see some feeling between the teams. Look at Vancouver. Chicago only played them a couple times since the Canucks came into the league. Then, they play three years in a row, and now you have quite a thing going. Controversy, all that stuff.”
Since the NHL doubled its size in 1967, the Blackhawks have been rather portable. They went from the East to the West to the Smythe to the Norris to their present neighborhood: Central Division, Western Conference. Next season, the Blackhawks will stay Central with Nashville, Minnesota, St. Louis, Colorado, Dallas and Winnipeg. The Jets, who moved from Atlanta, are currently in the East, which makes little sense. Columbus and Detroit in the West is a stretch, too.
“They belong where they’re going, to the East,” continued Bowman. “Detroit has been a good soldier for years, traveling a lot to the West Coast, three time zones away. That’s not ideal for television, when your road games start at 10:30 at night. Not if you have to get up in the morning and go to work.”
Logic has not always been as prevalent as it will be under the 2013-14 realignment. To wit:
• When the Canucks and Buffalo Sabres were added to the NHL as the 13th and 14th teams, they both joined the East Division. Remarkably, the Canucks stayed there for four seasons, while Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were in the West.
• When the Atlanta Flames and New York Islanders boosted the NHL family to 16 in 1972-73, the Islanders went East but Atlanta went West, while the Canucks stayed East.
• In 1974-75, the NHL grew to 18 teams upon the arrival of the Kansas City Scouts and Washington Capitals. Four divisions were instituted, but not without frequent flyers. The California Seals were grouped with Buffalo, Boston and Toronto. The Los Angeles Kings were with Montreal, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Washington.
• Did we say Kansas City? Absolutely. And it was the Blackhawks who won 4-3 in the Scouts’ home opener. Some of the Blackhawks thought they were in Kansas. But they were in Missouri, Toto. Soon the Scouts were in Colorado.
“To be honest,” Bowman concluded, “at least when I was in Detroit, their biggest rival was Toronto. But the Blackhawks will always have rivals.”
Like the Miami Heat? Patrick Kane and LeBron James have been tweeting niceties, but it’s still early.
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