ST. PAUL, Minn. – The Dallas Stars introduced their new owner last week, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman came for the occasion.
The boss wasn’t going to get out of town without being grilled about the possibility of the Stars moving to a different division.
“This is only the third time since I landed an hour ago that I’ve been asked that question,” Bettman said at the news conference for Tom Gaglardi’s takeover of the team. “The first time I met Tom and talked to him about his acquisition of the Stars, that was one of the first questions he asked me as well.”
Yes, realignment is quite the hot topic in the world of pro hockey.
The league’s board of governors will tackle the issue Monday and Tuesday at their regularly scheduled meeting with the hope of producing a formal vote on a new plan. Any changes require a two-thirds majority approval, or at least 20 of the 30 teams.
The Stars are one of a handful of franchises pushing for a shuffle of the current setup. The impetus for this came earlier this year when the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg and became the Jets. That left a central Canadian club in a geographically awkward group with Washington, Carolina, Florida and Tampa Bay.
With an unbalanced schedule, teams currently play each division opponent six times per season and non-division teams in their conference four times apiece. That leaves only 18 collective games against the 15 teams in the other conference, preventing fans from seeing certain opponents and star players on an annual basis. That also puts teams such as the Stars, Minnesota Wild and Detroit Red Wings on several long road trips to the West Coast each season. For a perennial power such as Detroit, that also means tougher travel schedules for the playoffs.
Minnesota’s first road game in the Central time zone this season isn’t until Dec. 13 at Winnipeg. The Wild make three annual trips to Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary. The Stars do the same to each of the three California cities.
The Red Wings, as one of two Eastern time zone teams in the Western Conference, play 11 road games this season that start at 9 p.m. or later in Michigan—including three 10:30 p.m. faceoffs. Not too many kids are staying up for the start of those, let alone the finish.
So, as Bettman assured Gaglardi: “It’s something we’re working on.”
Detroit wants to either be in the Eastern Conference or play each team in the league at least once per season, home and away.
“We’re looking for an improvement over what we’ve got now,” general manager Ken Holland said.
Columbus has the same goal.
“The most important issue for us in realignment is to get a home-and-home schedule with everybody,” Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson said. “If we can accomplish that, then that goes a long way toward satisfying us.”
Nashville resides in the Central Division with those two teams and Chicago and St. Louis. The Predators are pushing for a more-balanced schedule, too, given the number of miles they rack up travelling to western Canada and California twice per season. Plus their fans only get to see Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins an average of every other year.
Nashville has another hope, too—keeping Detroit as a division rival. The Red Wings are a big draw in Tennessee, as they are many places.
Tough to lose that rivalry?
“Definitely be tough to lose that,” Predators general manager David Poile said. “That’s not something we would be in favour of. We like the Central Division, and we like the teams that we’re playing with. We’ve built up rivalries not only with Detroit, but Chicago, St. Louis and Columbus. I think if we can get a little bit more balanced schedule, we’d be happy to keep it the same.”
One option is to reduce the number of divisions from six to four, with either seven or eight teams in each instead of the current five.
During an interview this summer on the team’s flagship radio station KFAN, Wild owner Craig Leipold mentioned Winnipeg, St. Louis, Nashville, Dallas, Chicago and likely Columbus as the new Central Division members with Minnesota.
If that came together, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary could then form the Pacific Division with Colorado, San Jose, Anaheim, Los Angeles and Phoenix, assuming the Coyotes can make it financially and avoid another move.
Detroit could join Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington, Carolina, Florida and Tampa Bay in an Atlantic Division. Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Buffalo, Boston, New Jersey and the two New York teams would form the new Northeast Division.
This is a move that Minnesota would favour as much as perhaps any other team.
Winnipeg is the closest Canadian city to St. Paul; plenty of Jets fans made the trip to the NHL draft here in June. Nashville is the team Leipold used to own. Columbus came into the league the same season, 2000-01, as the Wild. Dallas, of course, used to play in Minnesota as the North Stars until they went south in 1993. St. Louis and Chicago were old Norris Division rivals of the North Stars.
“That is a grand slam home run hat trick for our team,” Leipold said then.
Leipold declined through a Wild spokesman to be interviewed for this story, and team officials stayed quiet, too, another sign of the sensitivity of this subject around the league. But it’s clear just about everyone who has a hand in professional hockey in Minnesota would love to see more games and division races against the other teams in the Central time zone.
“You see the excitement in the building when we play St. Louis on a Saturday night,” Wild defenceman Nick Schultz said. “They’re good, physical games. To have those rivalries with any of those teams kind of back in the day how it was, I think would be fun.”
The easiest tweak would be to keep the six-division format and move Winnipeg to the Central and Detroit to the Southeast, at least alleviating two of the time zone dilemmas. But that would leave some teams unsatisfied. There are a number of moves that would make geographical sense, maintain the current number of divisions and make certain clubs happy but anger others.
“It’s not going to work out perfect for everybody,” Poile said.
Stars president Jim Lites is well aware of that. He was on the NHL’s board of governors from 1982-2007. The last time the league realigned was 1998, when Nashville entered as an expansion team and the six-division format was unveiled.
“It has always been a thorny issue. It doesn’t matter what the situation or what the circumstances are,” Lites said.
He added: “There’s a window for change right now. … Everybody’s going to give it a real good shot, I’m sure. People do want to do the right thing, so hopefully we can get it lined it up.”
AP Sports Writers Stephen Hawkins in Dallas, Larry Lage in Detroit, Rusty Miller in Columbus, Ohio, and Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.