By Stu Hackel
As the NHL Board of Governors meets today in Pebble Beach (the Govs never meet in garden spots like Bismarck, ND, or Gary, IN, or Trenton, NJ, do they?), it will have two crucial items on the agenda: realignment and the collective bargaining agreement.
We discussed some issues related to the CBA on Friday, so let’s look at realignment today.
UPDATE: The Board approved the proposal for a four-conference league on Monday evening, based primarily on geography. Two conferences will have eight teams and the other two conferences will have seven teams. When passing the proposal, the Board authorized Bettman to get input from the NHLPA prior to implementing it.
The new conferences are:
* New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Rangers, Islanders, Washington and Carolina
* Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Buffalo, Florida and Tampa Bay
* Detroit, Columbus, Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago, Minnesota, Dallas and Winnipeg
* Los Angeles, Anaheim, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Colorado
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly outlined the new alignment on the NHL Network Monday night:
The plan will not be implemented until NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who championed this restructuring, meets with the NHL Players Association. According to a story in The New York Post on Sunday, the NHLPA apparently isn’t too fond of the plan. TSN’s Darren Dreger tweeted last night he had been in contact with NHLPA spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon, who told Dreger, “Realignment requires an agreement between the league and the NHLPA,” adding, “We look forward to continuing our discussions with the league regarding this matter.”
Why is this issue so important? From a competitive standpoint, obviously, the plan the govs approved determines the teams’ respective schedules and, therefore, how they might fare during the regular season. It also set the playoff format.
The major unspoken point of Bettman’s plan from a competitive standpoint is that it gives more teams a chance to make a run at the postseason, even though the number of teams in the playoffs, 16, does not change. Under the current two conference alignment, the divisions are somewhat cosmetic; they only matter for top seeding. Teams essentially must compete against 14 other clubs for a playoff spot — and if you fall too far behind early, you’re done; there can be too many teams to climb over.
The new plan of four conferences spreads things out by having teams compete against only six or seven other teams for a playoff spot, making each team’s chances of making the playoffs seem greater. After all, teams sell the fans hope, hope they will make the playoffs and make a long run. That is what fans buy and the more hope, the better.
In that sense, by redesigning his conferences this way, Bettman is largely returning the NHL to the way he found it when he took over in 1993. At that time, there were four divisions in which the teams played consisting of either five or six teams. His 1994 realignment instituted the conference-based playoff format, teams 1-8 qualifying while 9-15 did not.
Each owner’s main concern is, after all, the bottom line — and that is the crux of the new alignment, the business impact of how the league is set up. Which opponents appear on a team’s schedule and how often has a lot to do with attendance and TV ratings. Alignment also has a direct bearing on travel costs. That’s why, unlike most matters that are discussed, this issue is one in which the owners’ individual interests can trump the common good.
There have been some unusual NHL alignments in the past — notably during the mid-1970s, when two the two-conference, four-division set-up was introduced. The Norris, Smythe, Adams and Patrick Divisions caught lots of flack for being named after people and not geographical location, although over time they developed real identities. Critics also derided the fact that regardless of their divisions, teams still played a balanced schedule with an equal number of games against each other. And the divisions included some strange groupings, none more weird than the original Norris Division of Detroit, Los Angeles, Montreal, Pittsburgh and Washington.
The 21-team NHL returned to a more geographically based arrangement in the early 1980s and remained pretty stable until Gary Bettman became commissioner. Since 1993, there have been three changes during his 17 seasons (and you can graphically view all the different alignments since the 1967 expansion on the blog Sixteen Wins).
Any realignment plan required two-thirds of the owners to agree. This new plan was not easy to achieve. The govs have been quietly butting heads for a long time, but about six weeks ago realignment talk seeped into the discourse of we mere mortals when TSN’s Bob McKenzie mentioned on Twitter that a growing number of owners believed that the Red Wings moving to the Eastern Conference was the prefered outcome. He reported about it on the air as well.
That sparked a firestorm of response tweets that led to McKenzie laying out all the various scenarios in this post on TSN.ca. The debate has been raging in the open ever since. [Here are my SI.com colleagues' thoughts on how they'd address realignment.]
The Red Wings’ situation was pivotal in the discussions because in the first Bettman Era realignment of 1993, both Detroit and Toronto — Eastern time zone teams — were moved to the Western Conference. The Maple Leafs were moved back to the East in ’98, but the Wings have remained Westerners. Many years ago, Wings owner Mike Ilitch beseeched Bettman to allow his team to move East and Ilitch was quoted many times as saying that Bettman had agreed that once an opening occurred for a team to shift, the Wings would get their wish. When Atlanta relocated to Winnipeg this season, that potential slot opened. The move happened too late to redraw this season’s schedule, and there were many complicating factors getting to Monday’s decision.
First, Columbus had entered the NHL since this problem first arose and the Blue Jacket are further east than the Red Wings. They wanted to be in the Eastern Conference, too. Second, the Western teams loved having Detroit in their conference. The Red Wings have been the best road draw among Western teams in all but one season since the turn of the century (and were probably tops in the late 20th Century as well). Moving them to the East would delete some big gates from teams in their division and conference, and those owners likely howled at the thought of losing Detroit.
The teams started coming up with some wildly different plans, which McKenzie outlined in his post, enumerating four or five alternatives. Dallas and Minnesota, for example, wanted out of their current divisions as well.
That led Bettman to concoct a plan of his own, one of wholesale change that did away with the current structure entirely and reconfigures the NHL into four conferences – two of seven teams and two of eight, roughly based on geographical considerations with an eye to preserving traditional rivalries. Each team would play a home-and-home series against each club outside its conference. The balance of the schedule would be within. The top four teams in each of the four conferences would qualify for the playoffs with the first two rounds played in the conferences. After that, the remaining teams would be re-seeded by points for the semi-finals with the two survivors playing for the Stanley Cup.
In the plan approved Monday by the Board, however, what happens after the four conference champions are determined has yet to be decided. That will fall to the NHL GMs, who will discuss in at their next meeting in March.
Reportedly, Bettman’s divisions (he preferred they be called conferences) originally were:
Group One: Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose, Phoenix, Colorado, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary.
Group Two: Dallas, Nashville, Chicago, St. Louis, Minnesota, Winnipeg and Columbus or Detroit
Group Three: Detroit or Columbus plus Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Boston.
Group Four: New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington, Carolina, Tampa Bay and Florida.
Well, it sounded good in theory until the conferences were revealed and the howling started again. For one thing, the Penguins and Flyers, two of the NHL’s most fierce rivals, were in separate conferences.
Teams also weren’t fond of the playoff format, saying that the same teams could end up playing the same opponents year after year in the first two rounds.
And then there’s the matter of Phoenix. No one knows for sure how long the Coyotes will stay in their Glendale hideaway, but they very conceivably could move somewhere east, like Quebec, and that might throw everything askew once again.
But the Red Wings were apparently satisfied that their concerns were addressed — that they’d no longer have so many road games, both regular season and playoffs, two and three time zones away. The other teams who wanted to move also were accomodated in the new set-up. And most of the Western teams appeared satisfied that the travel burden would be spread equally throughout the NHL.
This was just the starting point, however, and some horse trading ensued because not enough of the Eastern teams were on board . This version of realignment showed up on Fox Sports Detroit a couple of weeks ago:
It put the Penguins and Flyers together in the same conference with the Leafs, Habs, Sens, Bruins and Sabres. But that would mean the heated rivalries between the two Pennsylvania teams and the three New York area teams, would be gone. You can be certain that Ed Snider, the Flyers owner and one of the league’s most powerful governors, lobbied for those rivalries to be preserved.
The most the most recent configuration — which was ultimately approved — came to light Saturday night on Hockey Night in Canada’s ”Hotstove” segment (video), and looks like this:
Two conferences are exclusively Eastern Time Zone teams, one is Central and Eastern, and one is Mountain and Pacific. The two Eastern conferences have seven teams apiece, the others have eight, but since the new plan eliminates Eastern and Western, that doesn’t matter much.
The Flyers-Penguins problem was solved by putting them together in the group with the New York area teams. That meant moving the two Florida teams into the group where the Penguins and Flyers were — among four northeastern teams — and they stick out geographically like the hair under George Parros’ helmet.
As you can imagine, the Florida teams may not have been too pleased with the drastic increase this would mean in their travel costs, but more visits from the Canadiens and Maple Leafs, who always fill those Florida arenas, likely eased their mind. On the “Hotstove” segment, there was a discussion that the travel would be a burden to a number of other clubs, however, and some GMs expressed concern it will put the players’ health at increased risk.
The original idea of merely moving the Red Wings to the East and Winnipeg to the West seemed to still be on the table heading into Monday’s meeting. So there was an alternative plan if Bettman’s had too many opponents. And there are indications the vote was not unanimous. Dreger tweeted that four teams voted against the plan and said on TSN Radio 990 in Montreal on Tuesday morning that other teams, like Toronto who were against it voted in favor after the result was not in doubt as a show of unity. But some teams did not want to abandon the current format.
However, the “Hotstove” panelists maintained on Saturday night that Bettman would not have brought this to the Board of Governors if he had not been certain he had the votes to win approval.
Had the owners not decided by Tuesday how to settle this, they would have continued the discussion at their next meeting in February. It’s not the direction Bettman wanted go, however, probably because he prefered to dedicate that meeting to the owners’ direction in the upcoming CBA talks.
The NHLPA’s concerns still must be heard and it is uncertain how that will impact this proposal. But as it stands, there’s going to a number of teams dragged — perhaps happily now — into this new alignment.
Here’s the guy who wrote it and had a hit with it back when the NHL had but 14 teams, doing it live many years later.