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NHL Approves Realignment

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hockey could have gone the way of baseball. Instead, it followed the lead of the NBA.

It took the NHL about eight weeks to fall in line behind Commissioner Gary Bettman for its first major realignment since the 1981-82 season. Wednesday, the league announced a new regular-season schedule, a revised playoff format, and conference and divisional realignment.

“The impact of this move will be minimal and least disruptive,” Bettman said. “Having one conference with 12 teams and the other with 14 teams is not excessively unbalanced. It would have been more of a dramatic shift if Pittsburgh was moved to the West.”

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Gone are the Smythe, Norris, Patrick and Adams divisions, and the Campbell and Wales conferences. Now, the 12-team Western Conference (formerly the Campbell) will have two divisions, the Pacific and the Central. The Pacific (formerly the Smythe) has six teams: the Kings, the expansion Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Calgary, Edmonton, San Jose and Vancouver. In the Central (formerly the Norris) are Chicago, Dallas/Minnesota, Detroit, St. Louis, Toronto and Winnipeg.

The realignment decision signaled the influence of Bettman, who was third in command in the NBA. His role also provided a clear contrast to baseball, where a messy, fractious process was the last of several factors that helped take down former commissioner Fay Vincent.

The Kings welcomed realignment. “One of the things that’s hard for people to understand--I played in in both places--there’s a big difference between Canada and the United States,” the Kings’ Wayne Gretzky said. “A lot of people in Canada know what the Norris Division is and the Smythe Division. People in California don’t have a clue what it is.”

Said King owner Bruce McNall, chairman of the Board of Governors: “It helps for fans not as familiar with the game in the new expansion areas. We’re trying to make it more user-friendly so the names are not as unfamiliar.”

There are 14 teams in the Eastern Conference, seven in the Northeast and seven in the Atlantic. The Northeast (formerly the Adams) has Boston, Buffalo, Hartford, Montreal, Ottawa, Pittsburgh and Quebec. In the Atlantic (Patrick) are New Jersey, the New York Islanders, the New York Rangers, Philadelphia, South Florida, Tampa Bay and Washington.

In all, three teams had to switch divisions. Winnipeg moved to the Central Division from the Pacific, Tampa Bay from the Central to the Atlantic and Pittsburgh from the Atlantic to the Northeast.

A more significant change came in the playoff format, moving to a conference-based system similar to the NBA’s, with the first-place team in the regular season playing against No. 8; No. 2 vs. No. 7; No. 3 vs. No. 6, and No. 4 vs. No. 5. It is a more rewarding system, based on overall points earned in the regular season, with the four division champions ensured of home-ice advantage in the first two rounds.

The move will cut down on travel costs for the Kings and the Mighty Ducks. Instead of flying 1,540 miles to Winnipeg for a divisional game, the travel is reduced to a 40-mile drive from Inglewood to Anaheim. Teams in the West will play six games against each divisional opponent (30 games), four games against teams in the other division (24 games) and two against each of the 14 teams in the Eastern Conference (28 games). Said King Coach Barry Melrose, jokingly: “We still have to play Winnipeg four times. We can’t get away from them.”

Said Anaheim General Manager Jack Ferreira: “For us, geographically, it makes sense. My immediate reaction is it’s best for the league. Long-term it’s more difficult to make the playoffs. (That’s) obviously something you shoot for every year, but realistically, it’s something we don’t anticipate competing for a few years.”

Making up for the Pacific having two newer and weaker members--Anaheim and San Jose--the Central teams will get to play their neutral-site games against the six weakest clubs in the league. But the neutral-site games are still an issue that must be collectively bargained during the summer.

Times staff writer Robyn Norwood contributed to this story.

NHL Realignment WESTERN CONFERENCE PACIFIC Kings Mighty Ducks Calgary Edmonton San Jose Vancouver CENTRAL Chicago Dallas Detroit St. Louis Toronto Winnipeg EASTERN CONFERENCE NORTHEAST Boston Buffalo Hartford Montreal Ottawa Pittsburgh Quebec ATLANTIC New Jersey N.Y. Islanders N.Y. Rangers Philadelphia South Florida Tampa Bay Washington


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