How to make the best of NHL's 'divisions'
If this were a cross-country drive from Los Angeles to Boston, we'd be about at Amarillo.
And we'd be wondering how we were going to make it through the rest of the journey, much less afford the gas.
This arduous "trip" is the NHL's three-year scheduling cycle after the lockout and the dark season.
One season down, two to go. At least.
So now the trick is to make the best of it, and I mean everyone -- league officials, media, players and fans. That calls for more than ever treating the divisions as rump leagues within the NHL, and at least attempting to play to the "strengths" of this format.
Heck, maybe those of us who hate it can be won over.
Yes, there seem to be some fans who like the current format, which features eight games against divisional opponents and only 10 games against teams from the opposite conference each season; plus only one appearance for each team in opposite-conference arenas in the three-season cycle.
(Want to see Sidney Crosby in Edmonton? Wait till next year.)
Gary Bettman said last season that the feedback the NHL received from fans was positive, and I have no reason to doubt that. I just wonder whether the league was hearing what it wanted to hear. And it sure seems to me that most folks who like this format live where the Kings-Sharks game on "Center Ice" lasts well past midnight.
Some run franchises, and they would love an 82-game schedule in which air travel becomes even more of a rarity.
Some are fans who relish having plentiful opportunities to focus their acrimony, both tongue-in-cheek and completely serious, on a couple of teams they have despised since they were old enough to howl about the icing call or bellow at Stan Jonathan.
But I still think those who like this schedule are in the minority.
Under this format, it's common to have season-ticket holders deciding they might as well donate the tickets for the Blue Jackets' third appearance of the season to Father Pat to raffle off after mass at St. Bernadette's -- as long as Father Pat gives a tax receipt, of course. The mind-set is different today than when the Canadiens went into the Boston Garden seven times a season. Then, nobody knew anything different.
These things can be cyclical, obviously, but I'm assuming even the rabid and knowledgeable Red Wings fans got tired of seeing the Central Division's soft touches last season and wondered more often than before whether it really was going to be worth making that trip in from Farmington Hills or through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel some nights.
And did it seem to anyone else as though the Thrashers and Lightning played each other about 62 times last season?
The Stars have the biggest beef. They play nearly half their road games in the Pacific time zone, two hours behind Dallas time. That's 16 divisional road games, plus two in Vancouver, usually starting at 9 or 9:30 p.m. in Dallas. In the era of charter flights, travel isn't nearly as draining as it used to be, but this still puts the Stars at a relative disadvantage.
The point here is not to go over alternative scheduling ideas again. I've thrown some out in the past, and I've heard from many readers proposing other systems. All were reasonable except the one from the guy who took up half my laptop memory with the spreadsheet proving how the schedule could be composed a month at a time, a month in advance, using "power coefficients."
Most proposals agreed that every team should appear in all 29 other arenas, and thus in front of all the season-ticket holders, every season.
This assumption makes sense: A team should play more games against a division opponent than against other teams in the conference, thus giving the divisional standings meaning beyond cosmetic groupings.
This is the problem: The NHL now goes too far.
But the NHL isn't going to back off this system until at least 2008-09.
So, we're going to have to live with it.
The NHL tried to sell this as an embrace of "divisional rivalries." Swallowing that required a leap of faith that it could go beyond existing and traditional rivalries, leading to the heating up of new rivalries involving geography and perhaps even an evolving power structure in the league.
Not everything can be the Battle of Alberta, or Rangers fans yelling about the Islanders' Denis Potvin "inhaling" long after Potvin has left the ice.
Even the fans with a deep appreciation of tradition like variety and seeing as many of the league's teams as possible -- whether only on television or, more pertinent in this era of still-stunning, post-lockout ticket prices, in person.
Rivalries can't be contrived. They're real, or they're not rivalries at all. Rangers-Flyers. Canadiens-Leafs. Leafs-Sens. Avs-Wings. Well, trying to list them all risks stating the obvious, not to mention getting into debates about the definition. You know what they are when you see and experience them because you leave the arena hoarser than on other nights.
If this is the way the schedule is going to be for the next two seasons, and it is, then it would be more fun if everyone -- and, again, I'm talking about the media, too -- lets the "rivalry" aspect of this take care of itself.
On the ice, playing to the strengths of this format doesn't have to involve a pandering to low denominators, hoping the eight games become so ugly that Tiger Williams and Tie Domi are trying to climb over the glass in street clothes to get in on the action. But the passions involving familiarity have to be allowed to happen, too.
One way to take advantage of this system would be to encourage more personalizing of players coming into divisional markets four times a season.
Instead of writing about how the home team left winger has 11 goals in the past 20 games and has jumped to the top line, maybe we can be writing more about what it was like for the Wild's Marian Gaborik to grow up in Trencin or even whether Manny Fernandez is living up to the contract and his selection over Dwayne Roloson as the long-term No. 1.
That kind of approach has become less common in recent years, especially in the U.S., in part because of the not completely unreasonable assumptions that local fans care first and foremost about the home team and that there are many other outlets available for following the bigger picture.
But with this schedule, the visiting team -- particularly in the divisional matchups -- can become the story more often, both before and after the game, in every corner of the media, including the opposing team's telecasts and broadcasts. When was the last time you saw a truly in-depth profile of an opposing team player on a U.S.-based team's "own" broadcast? I'm not sure I can remember the last time I saw one.
How often do you see an opposing player on a program cover? Not very often, if at all, because there are only a few editions of the program each season, so the home team provides the cover boy.
Encourage the visiting team to practice in the opposing city, whenever possible, and have the media and even fans alerted -- rather than their being kept in the dark. Writers more often should be talking to players after the morning skate Nov. 2 to use in a story advancing the next game between the two teams. And if it takes a phone interview to get the job done, hand the captain a cell phone and say: "Talk." And the All-Star Game can be a great forum to fill up notebooks for future stories.
For the print media, doing more on the "other" team wouldn't involve shilling for the NHL; it's recognizing that this divisional familiarity can make fans more curious about a team facing the hometown franchise so often. And those kinds of stories don't have to be reserved for the appearances of the players whose names would be on the NHL's marquee if the NHL believed in having a marquee. Every team has a story or 20. Good ones. We haven't done a good enough job of telling enough of them if they aren't the stories of the men on the home team. While still being part of a culture that downplays individuals, the league -- to its credit -- has tried to make players available more often in recent years on such things as conference calls, but a lot of it has fallen on deaf ears.
I fully realize that most NHL fans in league markets, and certainly those coming to this section of the Web site, are strikingly knowledgeable about the rest of the league.
I'm just saying it would be best to both play to that knowledge and try to satisfy further curiosity.
Especially within the divisions.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."
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