Monday, January 14, 2008

NHL’s “Original Four” Carry On Without Two Of Their Brethren

There was familiarity, and it bred contempt – just as some wise soul once proclaimed.

Fourteen times they would meet during the regular season, at a time when a “trip west” meant your train stopped in Detroit, then Chicago. The watches and clocks would only have to go back one hour, at the most.

The frequency of seeing every opponent so often meant that there was time for patience. Few bided their time better than Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe.

The young Chicago center, Stan Mikita, had gotten Gordie good – a taste of Number 9’s own medicine with a sharply applied elbow to the mug. Proud of himself, Mikita skated to the bench, only to be met with glowering teammates’ faces.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” one of them told the eager youngster.

“What?” Mikita said, trying to justify his deed. “It’s part of the game.”

“You shouldn’t have done that,” it was repeated.

Several Red Wings-Black Hawk matches went by the board. No revenge was exacted by Howe. Mikita himself soon forgot about his ill-advised elbow. Got away with it after all, he perhaps thought.


“I had just made a pass, and was admiring it,” Mikita said years later. “The next thing I know, I’m lying on the trainer’s table in the dressing room. ‘Who did it?’ I asked. ‘Number nine,’ they told me.

“That damn Howe!”

Gordie kept score, and nothing went unpunished. Then again, it was easier to keep track of things, when the NHL’s 70-game schedule meant 14 matches with each of the other five teams.
The Original Six.

There’s no faction like it in any other sport. Baseball, with all its history and splendor, has old, established franchises, yes. But there’s no Original Six, no Original Eight, no Original Four – no Original anything. Football has the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, two of the original franchises from 1920. But the “original” here isn’t capitalized. Most of pro basketball’s original teams have been buried, or have moved so many times that you need an expert in genealogy to keep track of their heritage.

But hockey has its Original Six: Chicago. Detroit. New York. Boston. Montreal. Toronto. That’s it. And that’s how it was, until 1967, when the league doubled in size in one year – the Original Six turning into the Dirty Dozen. Suddenly, west REALLY meant west – Los Angeles and Oakland were in the league. So was Minnesota, and Philadelphia. And Pittsburgh, and St. Louis.

Few things in sports bug me more than the NHL’s ridiculous scheduling, which has essentially turned the Original Six into the Original Four. Boston, New York, Montreal, and Toronto get it on several times a season, they all being in the blessed Eastern Conference. Detroit and Chicago, once part of the club, are now strangers to their other four contemporaries. The Red Wings and Blackhawks toil in the Western Conference. Oh, they still play each other, but the unbalanced schedule means infrequent, if not rare, games with the Original Four.

Bettman's screwy schedule has practically robbed Detroit and Chicago fans of the other Original Six teams

My bile for Commissioner Gary Bettman and his aptly named “unbalanced schedule”, as in describing the person who thought it up (that would be him), rose to the surface once again when I considered Chris Chelios, and what he accomplished last week.

Red Wings defenseman Chelios, who will be 46 years old in a couple weeks, officially became the second-oldest man to lace up NHL skates. The oldest, of course, is Howe, who was a week past 52 when he played his last game in 1980 for the Hartford Whalers. (Incidentally, Howe played in all 80 games in his final season, and scored 15 goals. That’s like 20 goals without the senior discount).

What’s also remarkable about Chelios’s achievement is that he has done it for three of the Original Six teams: Montreal, Chicago, and Detroit. You can’t get any more appropriate than that.

Chelios gets his fill of the Blackhawks every season, since they share the same division as the Red Wings, and thus play each other eight times. But Montreal? Only a rumor. Same with the other Original Four teams, who breeze into Detroit once every three years or so, same as how often the Red Wings return the favor, thanks to Bettman’s screwy schedule.

In the interest of fairness, I will now present the logic behind Bettman’s madness.

Wouldn’t it be great, he thought, if the NHL could rekindle the splendor of rivalries and some of that contempt that familiarity breeds, by force-feeding teams down each other’s throats – based on divisional and conference alignment. It’s why the Red Wings see the Nashville Predators, Columbus Blue Jackets, and St. Louis Blues in their sleep. And the Edmonton Oilers, Minnesota Wild, and the rest of the conference are threatening to disrupt their REM time, too.

Bettman’s screwy schedule has actually defeated its own purpose. The force-feeding is making these divisional games so ho-hum, that people are starting to pass on them here in Detroit. A game against the Blues is like a subway train: if you miss this one, there’ll be another one around soon enough. How long before fans eschew the subway altogether?

But thank goodness for some sane minds around the league, in the form of the NHL Board of Governors. They voted late last year to change Bettman’s screwy schedule next season. Instead of eight divisional games and four conference games per opponent, there will now be six divisional games and four conference games per opponent. This means instead of 72 of the 82 games played within your conference, there will now be 64, leaving 18 games for the other conference – an average of 1.2 interconference games per team. It’s a start, anyway.

Now we’re back up to The Original Four-and-a-Half

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