It’s all about geography. That was the essence of the National Hockey League’s message when it announced its plan to realign its divisions last March and again when it announced the new division names in June. On opening day of the 2013-14 season, here’s a closer look at the geographical logistics of the changes.
“They’re roughly geographically aligned and partly based on regional rivalries in terms of cities who’ve historically played against other cities,” says NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly of the changes. The league maintained two conferences (the Eastern and Western), but changed its six-division format to four. The new divisions and the teams in each are:
Atlantic: Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa and Toronto;
Metropolitan: New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey, Washington, Pittsburg, Philadelphia, Carolina and Columbus;
Central: Chicago, St. Louis, Nashville, Minnesota, Colorado, Dallas and Winnipeg;
Pacific: Los Angeles, Anaheim, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton.
The biggest changes saw the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets move from the Western Conference to the Eastern, and the Winnipeg Jets make the opposite move.
“Columbus and Detroit probably benefitted most significantly,” says Daly of the enormous decrease in travel for the two clubs, which under the previous alignment were playing the vast majority of their games on the West Coast. (Along with saving significantly on travel costs, both clubs expect to see television ratings for away games increase in their local markets as a result of playing road games in the same time zone.)
Interestingly, Winnipeg won’t see much difference in frequent flyer miles from switching conferences. “Believe it or not, the travel benefits to Winnipeg are minimal at best,” says Daly. When they played in the Eastern Conference, the Jets’ schedule was maximized so they’d play clusters of eastern-based teams on road trips, and those clusters are geographically closer than the Western Conference clubs they’ll now face.
Of course, there are still some slight geographic oddities to the NHL’s new alignment, such as the grouping of teams in the Atlantic Division (which includes Florida and Tampa Bay with clubs in the continent’s northeast) and the name of the Metropolitan Division.
Daly notes dividing the Eastern Conference teams was a challenge. “It doesn’t work perfectly north and south either, especially because of traditional rivalries. We tried to maintain the traditional rivalries in the northeast, the Ottawa-Montreal, the Montreal-Boston,” he says. “These are rivalries that have existed for a long time.”
The NHL decided grouping traditional adversaries along the best geographical lines possible was the ideal solution. Hence, Florida and Tampa Bay (natural rivals) ended up in a division with Boston, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Buffalo and Detroit (many of whom are long-standing foes themselves). “They’re all in the Atlantic region, and all in the Eastern Time Zone, and that’s why we went with Atlantic,” says Daly of the division moniker.
The other re-grouped division in the Eastern Conference is in the mid-Atlantic region and is, as Daly says “largely a metropolitan region,” hence the name.
“It was important for us to keep what we developed in our last realignment, where you’re basically keeping Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary in the same division, and you’re keeping Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto in the same division, so that they play a maximum number of games against each other,” says Daly. And, East or West, who wouldn’t mind a trip south to Florida or California every once in a while?