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Crying “uncle”: Too many divisional games

January 26, 2012

In the most recent edition of The Hockey News magazine, Editor in Chief Jason Kay talks realignment in his “Editor’s Notebook” page. He directly takes aim at the notion “more is better” with respect to match-ups between divisional rivals. Indeed, the now botched 2012-2013 realignment plan sought to protect and enshrine traditional rivalries as much as possible. But when the news all broke two months ago, what Kay speaks of had me thinking the same thing (and what Ken Dryden aptly said in 1993: “mind-numbing”): “enough!”

As it stands, divisional teams play each other six times a year. Six. This number seems reasonable at the outset of the season, but when you play, say, the Maple Leafs, four times in four weeks, as the Bruins did earlier this year, it becomes tedious. The games lose their charm. And one must think, they lose viewers, lose interest.

The NHL boasts some of the stiffest rivalries. The Battle of Ontario. Battle of Alberta. Bruins v. Habs. Habs v. Sens. Any two Atlantic Division teams. Kings v. Ducks. The list goes on. There are some incredible match-ups, born of geography, politics and playoff bloodshed.

Rivalries are good for sports–but with one caveat: they are good only if used carefully.

Make them Cheerios with skim milk each morning, and they won’t be that Saturday stack of pancakes with maple syrup any longer. Beat them to death with TV promos, and these games will lose that “red circle on the calendar” feel. How many times will the NHL pimp out Capitals-Penguins games?

As a Bruins fan, I’ve long been instructed to love a Canadiens-Bruins match. And I do. But only a little at a time.  Six times a year, I can do that. Then take into account playoffs. As Kay notes, the same teams played each other numerous times through the 80s and 90s under different formats. Such is the case currently in the NHL with a few sets of teams. Last year, a Bruins-Habs match-up in the playoffs felt fitting. This year, well, I hope I am not the only Bruins fan wishing for something slightly different, like the Rangers, the Panthers, the Senators. Anything to mix it up. Invariably, the best teams will meet in the playoffs, often repeatedly, should a team’s health and success hold. Whether it’s San Jose and Chicago or Vancouver, the Rangers and the Capitals, these teams are bound to battle. That’s fine. It’s a great test.

But really, while HBO’s 24/7 would have us believe a constant state of hate and fear in a rivalry is a positive, I would like to think most NHL fans take the more nuanced, longer view of things. The league boasts enough talent, personality and soul to go around.

We know with some certainty the current landscape will hold for next season, with the NHLPA declined to accept realignment. The plan may eventually become a reality, but take note, NHL: be careful how you rate the importance of rivalries, and how you create schedules to accommodate them. You may be going overboard.

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