Geography snobs who have an issue with TCU joining the Big East need to learn a little more about another high school topic: History.
â€śEastâ€ť has never been too strict a term in sports alignments. The Horned Frogs share a metropolitan area with the NFC East-dwelling Dallas Cowboys, who have to travel an average of 1,450 miles for their divisional road games. And it wasnâ€™t too long ago that the Cowboys werenâ€™t even the outlier in the division. The Arizona Cardinals resided in the East for 14 seasons until 2001. So Rand McNally isnâ€™t exactly an NFL sponsor.
Rivalries trump geography in football, even when travel gets to be ridiculous. So even when the NFL realigned in 2002, there wasnâ€™t much talk of moving the Cowboys into the NFC West and replacing them with, say, the Carolina Panthers in the East. Thereâ€™s too much history between Dallas and the trio of Washington, Philadelphia and the New York Giants -- just like there was a tradition of enmity between the Dolphins and their AFC East brethren. So it was Indianapolis (latitude: 39 degrees) and not Miami (latitude: 25 degrees) that moved to the AFC South.
But grumbling about â€śEastâ€ť is nothing compared to the strange sports definition of â€śWest.â€ť When the Cards moved west, they stayed in the East, just as the team that replaced them in the Gateway City, the Rams, stuck with the NFC West when they moved east. The Rams didnâ€™t have much to complain about in that setup, though; they didnâ€™t have to do nearly as much traveling as the 49ers. From 1995 until 2001, San Franciscoâ€™s closest divisional partner was St. Louis, and it had to go cross-country for divisional games in Charlotte and Atlanta each year.
And speaking of Atlanta: The Braves, former denizens of Milwaukee, started their string of division titles in the National League West. So if youâ€™re scoring at home, Atlanta -- a city named for its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean -- had its Braves and Falcons playing in western divisions for a combined 61 seasons. Even the short-lived Atlanta Flames dallied in the NHLâ€™s West Division for two years in the 1970s.
And then thereâ€™s the case of the Vancouver Canucks. The British Columbia team played in the NHLâ€™s East Division from 1970 to 1974. Perhaps the absurdity of this concept isnâ€™t immediately apparent. This is a step beyond the Alaska Nanooks playing in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. Vancouver isnâ€™t just west of the Mississippi or close to the Pacific; Vancouver is the westernmost North American city to ever have a professional sports franchise.
Vancouver is as west as west gets. And placing the Canucks in the East doesnâ€™t fit the traditional rationales mentioned above; they were an expansion team that hadnâ€™t relocated and had no rivals. They werenâ€™t used to balance out uneven divisions, either. When Vancouver joined the NHL with the Buffalo Sabres, the NHL went out of its way -- moving the Chicago Black Hawks (two words back then) to the West -- to accommodate the Canucks in the East.
While the Canucks enjoyed a division where their closest rival played three time zones away in Detroit, the West housed the two teams that have won the past three Eastern Conference championships in the NHL: the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers. Thatâ€™s right: Philly was in the West, and Vancouver was in the East. Weâ€™re going to guess that either the NHL overlooked John Harrisonâ€™s discovery of a way to measure longitude 200 years earlier or that it named its divisions geographically in order to be â€śironic.â€ť
Donâ€™t worry, though: It didnâ€™t take long for the league to wise up a few years later and shake up its alignment into two conferences with two divisions each. Even then, the smartest thing the league did wasnâ€™t to place geographically proximate teams in the same divisions, which it only did halfheartedly; the smarter move was to name its divisions after people instead of cardinal directions. Because while it may be obvious that Montreal and Los Angeles donâ€™t belong in an East or West division together, itâ€™s harder to figure out which one doesnâ€™t belong in the Norris.