I was watching the 2016 NHL All Star Game when I was reminded of a perturbation that’s been eating at me for twenty years now. Actually, that’s not true. My kids were watching the 2016 NHL All Star Game because they are still young enough to find this game fun because they have no understanding as to the lack of effort these star players employ during it. I, on the other hand, was keeping myself busy doing exciting things like bookkeeping and cooking, you know homemaker stuff, for which, I might add, there is no All Star Game whatsoever.
Did I Just Hear Someone Say Metropolitan Division?
The kids were having a terrific time watching their favourite players, two of which play for the local hockey club, compete in an admittedly interesting twist on the game. This 3 on 3 tournament format, the little I saw of it, seemed to liven up the event a much needed bit and the players, gasp, almost seemed to be trying just a smidge. My attention was even starting to wander from my chores and to the television set that was entertaining my ever more boisterous offspring. At least it was until I heard the phrase “representing the Metropolitan Division” at which point a cringe engulfed my upper body from the peak of my forehead to my now rumbling colon. I’d just been reminded of that niggling perturbation.
In 1993 the National Hockey League owners hired Gary Bettman, the very first commissioner to oversee the league. His predecessors had all been presidents. I have no idea what the difference is or why the title change occurred, but I’m sure Mr. Bettman loves it. Name changes have been a favourite past time of his as NHL commissioner. He has, of course, overseen several team name changes over the years, along with their addresses. I could easily write a scathing rant on that subject, but it’s a topic beyond mere perturbation. He has helped facilitate name changes on the head office door for the NHL Players Association, a trick he’s pulled off three times using nothing more than the withdrawal of all NHL hockey for periods of time up to and including one full season. That too could make for a lengthy and heated diatribe but again, far beyond mere perturbation.
There is one name change fetish the Commissioner has, however, that is most definitely a perturbation and it’s what I wish to bluster about here. I speak of the changing of Conference and Division names, something Chairman Bettman did as a first order of business upon taking the reins of the NHL in order to make the game simpler to understand for new fans. That’s code for “most Americans.” Since the NBA, NFL, and MLB all used geographic division names, so too must the NHL because … “most Americans”. So with one swipe of his evil wand, the Prince of Wales and Campbell Conferences became the Western and Eastern Conferences and the Adams, Patrick, Norris, and Smythe Divisions became the Northeast, Atlantic, Central, and Pacific Divisions. See? Way more understandable. They practically explain the game all by themselves.
That American Team That Played In The Canadian Division
The NHL actually has a long history of idiotic geographic names for divisions. Those wonderful conference and division names above which I grew up with were only created in 1974. Prior to 1974, the NHL had been using a bizarre series of East and West Divisions since expansion in 1967 doubled the number of teams in the league from 6 to 12. The Original Six teams were all put in the East Division while the new teams were put in the West Division. As the league continued to expand, they started adding new teams to both divisions regardless of actual geographic location resulting in the bewildering fact that the Vancouver Canucks entered the league as an East Division team in 1970 all the while Pittsburgh and Philadelphia remained in the West Division. Even weirder, back in the thirties, prior to the establishment of the infamous Original Six, the NHL was split into two divisions; the American Division and the Canadian Division. The latter contained at least one American franchise every year of its existence. That American team, the one that spent every year in the Canadian Division despite there being an American Division was, with no shortage of irony, the New York Americans.
In a way, I suppose, Bettman was simply returning to a long established insanity that the NHL had thankfully abandoned for a eighteen year period from 1974 to 1992. That time frame encapsulates my youth and those great names honouring the founders of the NHL, Prince of Wales excepted, were the only ones I knew and I thought they were fantastic. I may be biased by my age and the naming convention employed during those formative years, but I don’t recall hearing too many old timers griping about them then or now. I’d hazard to state that what the NHL did in 1974 was a stroke of genius and that most hockey fans, if not all, enjoyed those names.
There are two things that Gary Bettman and his billionaire band of big swingin’ dicks still don’t understand. First, sports fans do not watch any sport for geography lessons. Why the hell would they? They know where their team is located and every other team is simply the enemy. Honestly, how the hell do compass headings help anyone understand hockey or any sport? I am not a fan of soccer but it’s not because the Premier League reveals nothing as to the location of said league. Second, far from making hockey difficult to understand, those non-geographical Conference and Division names actually made the NHL unique. They gave the league something that differentiated it from all the other sports leagues who also view their fans as nothing more than money spewing river rocks. Far from ditching these names the NHL should have been accentuating them. Play them up. Use them as focal points for which to share the history of the league and interest newcomers in exploring the game we love.
Just think how shortsighted those changes were in 1993 considering the evolution of the internet in the twenty years since. New fans could Google those names and learn about the foundations of a great league and the amazing sport it serves. Instead we nothing but boring map references, or we did until “Metropolitan” joined the ranks and swiftly graduated dull to dumb.
Compass Divisions Have No Identity
What Gary was undoubtedly ignorant of when he changed them is that those names gave each division an identity. Back in the 80s, you couldn’t have a hockey conversation in this country without fans referring to divisions and the personality of the teams in each. The Smythe Division was home to the run and gun, superstar loaded teams of Western Canada, not to mention The Great One, Wayne Gretzky. The Norris Division, or Snorriss, despite teams like Toronto, Chicago, and Detroit with glorious histories was embarrassing with all the teams struggling year after year and yet that collective ineptitude gave the division a Rodney Dangerfield no respect vibe that made it deceptively fun and loveable. The Adams Division had vicious rivalries between Montreal, Boston, Quebec, and Buffalo that provided hockey lore with some of the greatest brawls in all of hockey history. And the Patrick Division was the crown jewel of American hockey with the great Eastern seaboard (cough, cough) metropolises representing.
You don’t get that now. Nobody says, “Oh man, the Central Division is brutal this year,” or, “holy crap, it’s all-out war when Northeast Division rivals meet this year!” The NHL ruined something that was fantastic and they continue to make it worse every time they tweak the divisions. For a bunch of New York based bobble heads they haven’t the foggiest clue about marketing.
The NHL will never be the NFL or MLB or NBA. NEVER! Why even try? Hockey is a unique game, with an international flavour, a glorious Canadian core. They should be doing everything possible to highlight this uniqueness rather than hide it. Who’d have thought a bunch of damn Americans would be so bloody disinterested in shining a spotlight on their own individuality. Even when American bravado is warranted they manage to do it wrong.
Well listen to a Canadian for once. We know a thing or three about hockey. Bring back the old Division and Conference names. NOW! Please?