Realignment in NHL creates chaos beyond tumult in other leagues

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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Playing in the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, the Jets remain in the Eastern Conference. (Getty Images)  
Playing in the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, the Jets remain in the Eastern Conference. (Getty Images)  

The National Hockey League gets liquored up every now and then and decides its problems are solved by geography and its solutions are found in new geography.

And then it gets everyone else liquored up so as to anger people trying to figure out how Toronto can play 82 home games and nobody ever has to play the New York Islanders.

Thus their 24th realignment since expanding from six to 12 teams in 1967 worked brilliantly. For a day. Lots of people talked about it, laughed when they saw the only thing the league did was bring back an old format and shift around a bunch of teams to assure a lot of owners would be mildly irritated, and then waited for realignment No. 25 in two years.

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This is the league that once thought Toronto, Boston, Buffalo and Oakland were as snug a fit as Detroit, Montreal, Pittsburgh, Washington and Los Angeles -- at the same time, there was also a franchise in Vancouver. It either never occurred to them to adjoin the three Pacific Time Zone teams, or it was inconvenient for someone with more leverage with the commissioner's office.

Thus, you can see that blowing their noses on the map comes easily to our heroes.

The NHL has actually managed in the 44 years since they first doubled in size to keep an alignment in place for nearly a decade -- twice. That means they spent the entire '70s and '90s changing their look and formation every year or so, and it's an odd-numbered decade again, so in two years anything is likely. And laughable, too.

We are in the Golden Age of Realignment. College sports is essentially a mansion with beads for doors -- schools go in and out from room to room like sailors playing Find That Trollop. Baseball just tossed Houston into the American League West either to do Nolan Ryan a solid or to teach new Astros owner Jim Crane a lesson in clout. The NFL is just waiting for someone to win the Anywhere-to-Los-Angeles rally.

But only the NHL can throw so many teams into a Rand McNally Cuisinart and come out with the kind of guaranteed chaos that requires another trip to Pebble Beach next year to figure out what to do when Phoenix turns Canadian.

Put another way, if the Board of Governors met in Saskatoon or Iqaluit, they'd do realignment so seamlessly there would never be need to meet again.

At least in Saskatoon or Iqaluit.

But if you're going to bill your company for a trip to Clint Eastwood's restaurant or fit in a quick 18 on one of the planet's most famous golf courses, fixing your sport's divisional alignment to please everyone is less important than busting open that complimentary jeroboam of pinot whatsiscat.

In short, the BOG gathered in California to throw slips of paper in the air and come up with a new set of groupings that will require a trip to California in the not too distant future.

So they're actually tinkerers with a purpose -- and that purpose is to take care of their traveling jones. Had they thought about this a bit more, they might have taken the San Jose Sharks and moved them to Carmel just so they'd have an excuse to visit even more often.

What they did this time was turn the clock back to 1973, only with twice the membership. That time, they expanded to Long Island and Vancouver, and promptly put both teams in the Eastern Conference.

For this they needed months? Of course not. A blindfolded monkey could do that with half a snootful. In fact, the owners decided on that one over a two-beer limit, then spent the rest of the time arguing about whose turn it was to pick up the $85 bill.

These guys needed months of arm-twisting, a cross-country flight, a meeting in a resort, and then agreed to deny the existence of either east or west. They could have drawn four lines across the continent and just gone top to bottom and never gotten out of their pajamas.

But planned obsolescence is an art, too. Finding a way to put Winnipeg in a conference without any other Canadian teams takes some serious skill. And we know what kind of skill it is:

"Uhh, put this set of crystal steins from The Good, the Bad And the Ugly on the company tab. Oh, and see if you can get realignment on the agenda for next year. I'm looking for another summer home."

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.com.

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