NHL: Realignment, New Playoff Format Needed To Keep New Fans

Henry DyckSenior Analyst IJune 6, 2008

Along with Nick Lidstrom and the Red Wings, NHL commissioner, Gary Bettman and NHLPA union-boss, Paul Kelly, surely are popping some bubbly of their own.

Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals produced a 4.0 rating and a 7 share, the highest since Carolina and Detroit met for the Cup in 2002.

For a league that shutdown for an entire season only three short years ago, such a rapid rebound in fan interest is something the league must be ecstatic about.

So now what?

The league cannot stand idle and let this momentum slow down. They must continue to move the sport forward and capitalize on the fan interest that erupted from a very dramatic and entertaining finale.

Scheduling another ‘Winter Classic’ helps, as does beginning the 2008-2009 season overseas. However, I believe a more drastic move may be needed in order to increase the chances of an entertaining finals each and every spring.

It may be an unpopular opinion in some areas of the United States, but the league needs more hockey-mad markets facing off for the silver chalice.

How is that achieved? By realigning the league into four divisions and adding more eastern residing teams into the Western Conference. On top of this, the playoff format will need to be changed to reflect how it was in earlier years, with divisional playoffs instead of conference seedings.

So in this scenario I propose that the league move Toronto and Ottawa into the Western Conference with Nashville and Columbus transplanting into the Eastern Conference.

I know this makes little geographical sense, seeing that if any team needs to be moved it should be Detroit into the East. However, it’s my belief that a Western Conference division without Detroit, equals ratings death for the playoffs. It’s for this exact reason why Bettman refuses to move the Wings there now. Even if the league were to expand, injecting two western placed franchises, Detroit would still remain a Western Conference team.

With my scenario, which would involve a Western Conference Division including Detroit, Toronto, Ottawa, St. Louis, Chicago, Colorado and Minnesota, the league would be guaranteed an eastern-time-zoned team (or at least Central time) in the Conference finals. And a good hockey market at that. With a 50% chance of one of those teams advancing to the finals, the league would be in great shape to produce a Stanley Cup Finals as exciting as this years.

The absolute worst thing that could happen is for the 2009 Cup final to feature a team, or teams, that have little fan interest or league-wide appeal.  In last years finale, the Ottawa Senators battled the Anaheim Ducks in a five-game set that saw the Ducks taking the Cup home back to southern California. Having a Canadian team represent the East meant great ratings north of the border, but Anaheim struggled to grasp the American conscience drawing an average rating of 1.76. Even worse, the Ducks drew only 15,000 fans to their own Stanley Cup celebration. Compare that to the nearly 1 million fans that celebrated the Wings 2002 Cup win, or the 9,000 that were in attendance at Joe Louis Arena to watch Game 6 via the Jumbotron.

The league needed to expand, and I’m not going to argue that penetrating non-hockey markets to increase the national footprint wasn’t necessary. Teams such as the Dallas Stars, San Jose Sharks and the Tampa Bay Lightning have enjoyed great success in markets where hockey is the last sport that comes to mind.

Saying that, I still believe more non-fans will watch a final that includes two teams that reside in a market that is rich with hockey tradition. All you need to do is read some of the excellent articles that have been posted on this site recently to see my point.  .

The momentum the NHL is experiencing hasn’t been this strong since the 1994 finals between New York and Vancouver. It needs to do whatever it takes to ensure the best possible match-up in the Stanley Cup finals. Injecting more eastern teams into the west, as well as altering the playoff format, the NHL will be closer to increasing those odds.

The train is rolling; it’s up to Gary Bettman and Paul Kelly to carry this momentum into a stronger and brighter future.

Henry Dyck