Keep the Canadian Division going forward

Opinion

Some of the greatest discoveries in the world — from penicillin and potato chips to microwave ovens and matches — were the fortunate byproducts of dumb luck and circumstances. And now we have a new entry to the list, something that was never meant to be but we now can’t imagine life without.

I’m talking about the National Hockey League’s Canadian Division.

Commissioner Gary Bettman had no choice but to put the Winnipeg Jets, Ottawa Senators, Edmonton Oilers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks, Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames together this season in order for his league to play during a global pandemic. A closed international border to non-essential travel and strict health and safety protocols meant keeping the seven Canadian clubs separated from the 24 American teams.

Not even two weeks into the new campaign, I’m ready to declare this the greatest thing since sliced bread (which, for the record, was invented on purpose, not by fluke), and to begin advocating loudly for it not to just be a one-off but rather a permanent change.

Maybe it was seeing Logan Stanley, all six-foot-seven of him, grabbing a pair Ottawa Senators by the scruff of their necks during a scrum late in Thursday night’s game, the way another big Winnipeg Jets defenceman used to do. Or Jets forward Jansen Harkins and Ottawa Senators forward Brady Tkachuk screaming at each other in the penalty box. Or Jets defenceman Nathan Beaulieu sporting a visible wound above his left eye during Friday’s Zoom call.

Perhaps it was Tyler Myers, the ex-Jets blue-liner, delivering a high, nasty hit to Joel Armia, his former teammate in Winnipeg, that got him booted from the Vancouver-Montreal game later that same evening. How about Jets star Patrik Laine taking swings at Public Enemy No. 1, Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk, during opening night at Bell MTS Place?

No, it didn’t take long to get the blood boiling north of the border, not with these seven teams playing each other nine or 10 times each this winter, often in two or three or even four-game blocks that quickly raise the temperatures inside the otherwise empty arenas.

Physical play not your thing? There’s been goals galore to tickle your fancy — 105 of them through the first 16 one-anthem games, which makes it the highest-scoring of the four re-aligned divisions. With some of the biggest superstars in the league, from Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to Toronto’s Auston Matthews and Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele, we shouldn’t be surprised.

The Canadian Division was also the first to have every team record a win, taking just four days, suggesting parity, which should make for an exciting four-month race to the playoffs.

Add it all up and this has already been more fun than I could have imagined. But don’t just take my word for it. Television ratings have been terrific, which isn’t a surprise given every game in the division, all 196 of them, will truly be Hockey Night In Canada.

According to Sportsnet, Montreal and Toronto delivered a record-high average audience of 2.01 million viewers on opening night, obliterating the previous network record of 1.44 million for the Toronto Blue Jays’ 2013 home opener. The nightcap, between Vancouver and Calgary, averaged an impressive one million viewers.

“Absolutely, but only if I was working in Canada. If I keep my Jets job, yeah,” a wide-eyed Jets head coach Paul Maurice told us earlier this week over Zoom, when his team made a pit stop in Toronto to take on the Maple Leafs and a scribe asked him if he’d be in favour of the Canadian Division becoming the new normal.”

“The idea is wholly selfish. The best part of this is you’re really only playing Canadian teams, we have our own little tiny league here. We’re not crossing the border, not going all over the place. Yeah, I would absolutely love it. It would be just fantastic,” he added.

With some of the biggest superstars in the league, from Edmonton's Connor McDavid (above) to Toronto's Auston Matthews, there are going to be a lot of goals scored in Canada. (Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press files)

With some of the biggest superstars in the league, from Edmonton’s Connor McDavid (above) to Toronto’s Auston Matthews, there are going to be a lot of goals scored in Canada. (Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press files)

Maurice also threw some cold water on the notion, suggesting it was unlikely to happen. To which I’d say: why the heck not?

Some changes would have to be made, sure. The Seattle Kraken will join the NHL next fall, making it a 32-team loop. So one seven-team division likely won’t work. Easy fix — welcome the Detroit Red Wings or Buffalo Sabres as the eighth member going forward. They’re a hop, skip and a jump across the border, so it makes sense.

I’d still like to see one part of the traditional schedule occur, where every team in the league plays each other at least twice, once at home and once on the road. I suspect fans who pay their hard-earned money to buy tickets appreciate that as well.

If you do the math, that’s 31 opponents times two, for 62 games. The remaining 20 games, to get the traditional 82, should be entirely divisional. That would make playing six divisional rivals three more times (for a total of five games), and one divisional rival twice more (for a total of four games).

Who says no?

There’d be the guarantee of four Canadian teams (or three, I suppose, if the Sabres/Red Wings get in) making the playoffs every year, and one of them emerging from the division to compete in the Stanley Cup semifinals.

I think we’d lap it up, like maple syrup with our flapjacks or gravy with our poutine.

In the process, you’d also be strengthening geographic rivalries south of the border with an increased focus on divisional play based on proximity. Do you really think fans in Dallas or Nashville, for example, really care about seeing Winnipeg play against them in the Central Division numerous times a year? Of course not. One visit a season is more than enough.

Since we’re talking change, I’d also love to see these mini-series against each other carried into the future. A couple divisional games in one city before moving on is a great way to keep the travel expenses down and get the intensity up.

“The idea that you could be in the league at a time when there was a Canadian Division, like this is about as… I don’t know if cool is the right word but when you’re growing up, at least in Sault Ste. Marie for me, I guess my dad was a Detroit fan but there were really only Canadian teams, right? Toronto and Montreal and Edmonton and that was the NHL as a young kid, it was kind of that idea that you cheered for one of those Canadian teams,” Maurice said earlier this week.

“And then 50 years later you’re coaching in a league that has a Canadian Division and all of the excitement that goes into it, the scrutiny, the pressure, you can’t have one without the other, so I would take fans in the building and no Canadian Division over the Canadian Division an no fans because could you imagine that, full buildings and a Canadian Division? Now I’m just daydreaming.”

The crowds will eventually come back. When they do, let’s hope Bettman and company really give them something to cheer about by realizing what they’ve stumbled into and making the dreams of patriotic hockey fans a full-time reality.

 

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

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