Spector on NHL: No realignment plan is perfect

"Most sensible geographic designations … the easiest to remember," Gary Bettman said on naming the four Divisions.

How you look at realignment depends, for the most part, on where you watch your hockey.

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens, historically, never cared much whether the three Western teams played in their buildings or not. Because ever since Wayne Gretzky left Edmonton, fans in Montreal and Toronto didn’t care much either.

They would rather play each other or Boston.

But back in the ’90s it was deemed so important by Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver that those Original 6 Leafs and Habs uniforms appeared in living colour, that for years the (then) six Canadian teams annually played home and home when the rest of the league did not.

You won’t hear many fans in that New York-New Jersey-Philadelphia corridor saying, “Why doesn’t Colorado ever come to town?” But back in Denver, a visit by the Rangers or Flyers is both tangible evidence that you’re in the best league in the world, and a chance for displaced Easterners to pull out the old jersey once a year. (See also: Detroit fans in Los Angeles).

So it was for reasons that would bore most folks east of Hamilton that front office types in Dallas, Winnipeg, Columbus and Detroit were doing back flips Thursday, with the announcement that, indeed, the proposed realignment would become a reality.

“(Prime time in the) Central time zone starts at seven in people’s television watching habits. Trying to start (divisional road) games at 9 or 9:30 p.m. just limits the number of people who are going to watch,” said Dallas Stars president Jim Lites. “It changes your narrative. People lose touch with you when you go on a three-game swing through the West. You might go a week and people will not have watched.

“It’s not an excuse. It’s just kind of the way.”

So now we’ve reached the point where a Canadian might say, “If people don’t care enough to follow the road games, maybe you shouldn’t be playing hockey in (fill in the blank).”

Which is fair — kind of. Until you look at the schedule.

Toronto has exactly one three-game road trip this entire season, where they leave Toronto for Game 1 and come home after Game 3. The Rangers do that exactly twice this season.

Dallas has four of those. Columbus has two four-gamers, and one that lasts for six games. Edmonton just came off a nine-game trip, albeit forced by the Brier. Vancouver has five trips of three games or longer, and there’s no going home midway through when you’re the Canucks.

“It’s closer to Winnipeg from Dallas, than it is from Dallas to (Los Angeles). People don’t realize that,” said Lites. “It’s just a better thing for this franchise. For sure.”

Detroit GM Ken Holland echoed that sentiment: “We’re an Eastern Conference city and going into an Eastern Conference Division will make many more of our road games on in prime time.”

The bottom line is it’s seven per cent harder to play in the West than the East. So if the new alignment leaves you thinking it’s seven per cent tougher to make the playoffs out East, then so be it.

Bettman dismissed that 16-14 argument Thursday: “(Maybe if) you were … flipping a coin,” he said. “The seventh and eighth team (in each Division) are typically teams that are out of it anyway”

Speaking of Divisions, this is the one place where this scheme falls short for us. Bettman said Thursday that they’ll be coming up with drab, directional names for the four Divisions.

“Most sensible geographic designations … the easiest to remember,” he said, like we ever had a hard time recalling who played in the old (Chuck) Norris Division. “We’re hoping to use the names that make it easier to conjure up in your own mind which teams play where.”

Yes. Like, for those fans whose school systems weren’t able to educate them to the point where they might have a hot clue where Vancouver is. Or Tampa.

It’s thinking like this that will be Bettman’s legacy.

The Fox puck was invented for Americans who were too stupid to know that a puck rimmed around the boards from the left point would eventually arrive at the right half-wall, if untouched along the way.

People didn’t understand what the Smythe Division meant? Why not work as hard at teaching them some hockey history, as we do at dumbing the game down for them?

You’ll never have Pete Northeast present a championship trophy for winning one of these new Divisions. But you could have Wayne Gretzky. Or Bobby Orr. Or for a few more years — many more, we hope — Jean Beliveau or Gordie Howe.

Or in Mr. Hockey’s absence, how about Mark or Marty?

But no, we’ll settle for boring geographical names that are without history or nor emotional currency.

Like they say with this realignment. No plan is perfect.

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