The NHL made a big splash Monday by deciding to realign from its current six-division/two-conference format to four conferences starting as early as next season. Assuming the union gets on board with this plan, there is a great opportunity here to right one of the great NHL wrongs -- and there has been no shortage of those -- from the past two decades.
It is time to bring back conference/division names that mean something to hockey.
When Gary Bettman became NHL commissioner in 1993, he quickly scrapped the traditional conference and division names, and replaced them with generic geographic designations. No more Campbell and Wales conferences. No more Adams, Patrick, Smythe and Norris divisions. They were replaced with names that had no history, no character, no cachet. Pacific Division? Great, just like the NBA. Central Division? MLB has two of those now.
Instead of accentuating and celebrating the traditions that distinguished the NHL from the other leagues, Bettman chose to strip it of characteristics that were unique to its sport.
The NHL has already gone back to the future with Winnipeg Jets 2.0, so why stop there?
We're open to suggestions, but just to start the conversation, we propose the four new conferences be named for Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr.
The Gretzky would be the conference with two of his primary old teams (Edmonton and Los Angeles) and the one he coached (Phoenix). The Howe would be the one with the Red Wings in it, and with the Penguins and the Bruins in separate conferences, there would be no conflict with Lemieux and Orr for the remaining two.
If you wanted to get some coaches in the mix instead, how about Scotty Bowman and Herb Brooks? Brooks never won a Stanley Cup, but his impact of the game from the Miracle On Ice alone puts him in this discussion.
It is easy to dismiss this name game as simply a matter of semantics, and we do understand that nobody ever refused to buy a ticket or decided to change the channel because the Smythe Division is merely a memory now.
Ultimately the product is what matters, and in 1993, the NHL was hot with Lemieux coming off back-to-back Stanley Cups, Gretzky taking the Kings to the finals and Mark Messier being a year away from ending the Rangers' curse in New York.
But there is something to be said for having pride in the culture of your sport, and the NHL now has a chance to restore it.
The NHL gets itself into trouble when it tries to mimic the NBA, NFL and MLB when there isn't a natural fit. But when it is true to its roots, the results are generally a hit, with the smashing success of the Winter Classic being the prime example.
The NHL has done well to honor people. That's part of the lore of the greatest trophy in sports.
Lord Stanley's Cup.
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