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THE NHL : Expansion Stirs Debate Over Realignment

The speeches were made, the vote was taken, results were tabulated and the decision was announced.

But the campaign has just begun.

When the NHL selected Ottawa and Tampa several weeks ago for the next round of expansion, it ended, at least for now, the hopes of cities from Hamilton, Canada, to Miami, and from Houston to San Diego.

The NHL will add the San Jose Sharks next season and the Tampa Lightning and Ottawa Senators in 1992-93 at a cost of $50 million to each expansion owner.

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Beyond that, the league has declared its desire to add four more teams by the turn of the century.

End of subject?

Hardly.

Because although the owners have decided which cities will have teams, they have just started the debate about which divisions they will play in.

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Does San Jose naturally go into the western-oriented Smythe Division? And Tampa into the eastern-based Patrick?

Where does that leave Ottawa?

Some club officials think that rather than merely shuffling the deck, this is a good excuse to break out a whole new pack of cards.

King owner Bruce McNall and Chicago Blackhawk Vice President Bob Pulford are among them.

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Both would like to see a total realignment of the league, along American and Canadian lines.

Under McNall’s plan, the Kings and the Sharks would move to the Norris Division, giving them natural rivalries with Detroit, St. Louis and Chicago.

Toronto would move to the Smythe, where the Maple Leafs would face Canadian opponents Edmonton and Calgary.

“Right now, there are the problems of going through customs all the time for all our teams,” McNall said. “And there are no direct flights between a lot of these cities.”

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That, of course, is not a problem for the Kings now that they have their own plane. But going from San Jose to Winnipeg on a winter’s day can be the real-life equivalent of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”

When McNall introduced his plan at the NHL meetings in Florida, however, the chilly reaction could be felt all the way to Canada.

Detroit doesn’t want to play so many games in Los Angeles, where the three-hour time difference could hurt its telecasts. Toronto doesn’t like losing its longtime rivalry with Detroit. Vancouver doesn’t like losing the Kings and the Sharks, two clubs in its own time zone.

Under the Pulford Plan, the league would go a step further and put the Patrick Division in the Campbell Conference with a Norris Division that would contain the Kings, creating an all-American conference.

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The Smythe Division under the Pulford Plan would add Montreal, Quebec and Ottawa, leaving only Toronto among the Canadian clubs to play in an American division.

“To put Los Angeles in a division that has all Canadian clubs, the way it is now, is unfair,” Pulford told the Chicago Tribune. “Los Angeles fans can’t relate to rivalries against Canadian cities. They are used to U.S. city rivalries in other sports--basketball, football, baseball. They want to see more of Boston, Chicago, Detroit and so on.

“What happens to Los Angeles when (Wayne) Gretzky is finished playing? They must establish some rivalries with U.S. teams by playing them more.”

That’s the same argument McNall uses when people wag their fingers at his plan and say the only reason he wants out of the Smythe is to get away from such tough rivals as Edmonton and Calgary.

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“This proposal has nothing to do with the quality of play,” McNall insisted. “That’s short-sighted. Chicago and St. Louis might be better than Calgary and Edmonton in the future.

“But we’d also have better rivalries. Over the long term, you’d build up rivalries with cities people are familiar with.

“If you took the average (Los Angeles) hockey fan, and told him to go to a map and point out where Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver are, he might have some idea where Vancouver is. Other than that, he would have no idea.”

One problem with McNall’s plan for realignment is that it seems premature. Putting together new divisions while the NHL is in the midst of a decade-long expansion plan is like betting on a roulette wheel. How can you be sure where it’s going to stop? Why form a new division that may be as geographically ridiculous as those that now exist when still more new teams come in? Waiting until expansion is complete might be more sensible.

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“We might have a western division if we pick up a San Diego, or a Seattle, or a Texas,” McNall acknowledged. “We might want to review it again then.

“But, I think it’s wrong to wait for what may never be. Or maybe the new teams will all end up on the East Coast. Or maybe this is the end of expansion for a while.”

League officials already promised Winnipeg it could switch to the Norris Division, a great move geographically for the Jets, when expansion became a reality.

But with all these proposals being fired back and forth at the meetings earlier this month, the only definite decision was to put the Sharks in the Smythe Division for next season. A committee was formed to study where to go from there.

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“We discussed every formula possible,” McNall said. “The committee (which will include McNall) will consider any and all possibilities.

“The choices are anything from remaining the same and just adding the new teams to the present divisions to a variation on what I suggested to a complete realignment. We could go to conference play. Or we could set up three conferences with eight teams each. Whatever we decide, not everybody is going to be happy.

“But, anything is possible. Make up anything you want, any formula you can imagine. Throw it up in the air and see whatever comes down. It’s a whole new ballgame.”


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