Fans, not Capitals, will miss Penguins


After hours of study, contemplation, consultation and confusion, a decision finally has been made concerning the National Hockey League's new realignment and changes in nomenclature, scheduling and the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Yech! Try again, fellas.

Of course, we'll all learn to live with it sooner or later, as in days of yore when the NFL-AFL merger went into effect and the Colts, Browns and Steelers took a payoff to leave the old guard to reside and prosper in the AFC.

But, in the meantime, let's rue the folly of some of these moves, supposedly orchestrated by brand spanking new commissioner Gary Bettman.

With expansion teams falling through the skylight two at a time, including one of the latest bearing the inspiring name of Mighty Ducks, realignment was inevitable. But come on, Commish, what's the idea of taking a case of Dom Perignon out of the Patrick Division and replacing Mario Lemieux and his Pittsburgh Penguins with a six-pack -- the Tampa Bay Lightning and the team from South Florida.

The Adams Division turned out the big winner in this maneuver, gaining Pittsburgh to go along with the Bruins and Canadiens in a handsome U.S.-Canada consortium at a cost of absolutely nothing. Recall the years prior to the arrival of Mario when the Patrick had to put up with really awful Penguin teams. At least they mixed it up capably.

It's no surprise certain general managers in the Patrick Division are glad to get rid of the Pens, thinking only of the windfall of victories over Florida teams and not of a fan's interest in seeing competitive games and stars.

The Norris Division comes away with a smile, shucking Tampa Bay and picking up Winnipeg to solidfy its six-team lodge from top to bottom. The Smythe, while forced to give up a quality franchise like Winnipeg, inherits those Mighty Ducks from Anaheim to go along with San Jose.

The fact there are three franchises in California now recalls a line uttered by Jack Kent Cooke, original owner of the Los Angeles Kings. When it was pointed out that a huge concentration of Canadians were living in the L.A. area, Cooke, a Canadian himself, looked at his sorry attendance figures and replied, "And I know why most of them left Canada: to get away from hockey."

Years ago, the league that doesn't think straight caught all sorts of flak for naming its division after old-time hockey icons. Now, just about the time fans have become comfortable with the names Patrick, Adams, Norris and Smythe and have the teams placed correctly in each, they follow the crowd and go with half-directional/half-oceanic designations.

Repeat after me: The Patrick is now the Atlantic, the Smyth is the Pacific, the Adams is the Northeast and the Norris is the Central. And, oh yes, forget the conference designations of Prince of Wales and Campbell, too. They are now the Eastern and the Western. What, no National and American?

After all was said and done, Bettman promised that the adopted plan "will enhance rivalries both within and outside divisional play." Gary, a basketball man from the NBA, remember, did not bother to elaborate on how rivalries would be enhanced outside divisional play, unless he was thinking about how much better it would be for the former Patrick Division, for instance, to have another game annually against the Ottawa Senators.

Only a complete curmudgeon would knock the scheduling change, which sees a two-game droppage in divisional games with one of the games going toward teams comprising the other division in the conference.

For years, fans have wearied with Washington playing seven games against the likes of the Flyers, Islanders, Devils, Rangers and Penguins, then going right back in against the same cast in a best-of-seven during the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Capitals will play five games against Atlantic foes (for a total 30), four each with the teams from the Northeast (28), then just two against the teams of the Pacific and Central Divisions (24). The regular-season schedule thus drops from 84 to 82 games starting next year, which figures to lengthen the careers of several players.

The playoff change sees hockey copying the NBA format (henceforth to be referred to as the Bettman Influence) and involves conference-based standings. In other words, all 14 teams in the Eastern Conference are pooled with the first-place finisher (in points) taking on the eighth, 2 vs. 7, 3-6, 4-5. The amazing thing in this is the league is eliminating an astonishing six teams in this conference alone.

If the past is any indication, this will be replaced in a couple of years by a feed-in system of wild cards to get more teams involved. Or maybe they can come up with something similar to the NIT.

Keeping the opening round 1-8, 2-7 matchups within the conference makes a lot of sense because back in the late '70s they went to a 1-16, 2-15 deal covering the whole league and there were many empty seats early on as fans weren't beating down the doors to see losing teams from three time zones away come to town.

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