By Sean McAlevey, Ben Garyfalakis, and Warren Cotton
IN LINE FOR OVERPRICED TOON FOOD, MORON MOUNTAIN, TOON LAND — In a recent piece on thespec.com regarding the new NHL realignment for the 2013-14 season, Florida Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau is quoted saying, “I guess we’re the team that’s going to travel the most in the (Eastern Conference).”
He’s not exaggerating. Along with moving Detroit and Columbus to the Eastern Conference and Winnipeg to the Western Conference, the new NHL structure establishes two divisions in each conference – the Pacific and Central in the West and the Metropolitan and Atlantic in the East; each contain seven (West) or eight (East) teams. Under the old structure, there were three divisions per conference and five teams per division.
While the realignment has successfully reduced travel times for certain geographically disadvantaged teams – such as Detroit, Columbus, and Winnipeg – it has also curiously increased travel times for others – most notably Florida and Tampa Bay, and the Atlantic Division in general.
Previously, the NHL’s two Florida teams played in the Southeast Division of the Eastern Conference, along with Washington, Carolina, and Winnipeg. The division made sense geographically from its inception in 1998 to 2011, when the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to the Canadian heartland and rebranded themselves the “Winnipeg Jets.” Coincidentally, this move was the catalyst that prompted the NHL to restructure its conferences, the manifestation of which is the current conference alignment.
Under the new alignment, Florida and Tampa Bay reside in the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference. They’re accompanied by three Canadian teams – Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal – and three northern American teams – Boston, Buffalo, and Detroit. Which means Florida and Tampa Bay will indeed be traveling the most in the Eastern Conference.
For comparison, the other Eastern division, the Metropolitan, houses Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New Jersey, Columbus, Washington, Carolina, and the New York Rangers and Islanders – all teams within a reasonable vicinity of the mid-Atlantic region.
The result is two absurdly different travel dynamics for the two Eastern divisions. While the Metropolitan Division maintains geographic continuity and limits travel distances, the Atlantic Division fails to demonstrate any semblance of a cohesive region, leaving a stark division within a division. It arbitrarily forces the the Eastern Conference’s northernmost teams into a division with its southernmost.
Why might the NHL and commissioner Gary Bettman have structured the East this way?
Here’s the theory.
There is a shockingly high number of Canadians living in Florida. One immigration site claimed that in 2004, Florida had 99,139 Canadian-born residents. And there’s reason to believe that number has increased dramatically since.
“There’s a clear Canadian infatuation with Florida,” says a PolitiFact piece from 2011. An absurd 9% of all Canadians – 3.05 million out of 34 million – visited Florida at some point in 2010. (Adjusting for size of population, that would be the equivalent of 30 million Americans – or the entire state of California – visiting, say, British Columbia in a year.) What’s more, Canadians account for 7.92 percent of all Florida home sales. The piece concludes:
As one Canadian-turned-Floridian-real-estate-agent joked in a National Public Radio report on the housing phenomenon, “If there ever was an 11th (Canadian) province, it probably would be Florida.”
While Canadians continue to flock en masse to Florida, a Forbes article from 2012 ranked Tampa Bay’s and Florida’s fans third- and fourth-worst in the NHL, respectively, in terms of sales – tickets, concessions, TV, jerseys. Naturally, the Canadian fans that move to/retire in Florida will be more inclined to buy tickets to Florida Panthers or Tampa Bay Lightning games when their team comes to town. If they can’t attend the game, they’ll be more inclined to watch it on TV. Etc., etc.
So, the theory goes, the league would put its two Florida teams in the same division as its three eastern Canadian teams in order to increase the number of matchups between the two groups. With teams playing 30 intra-divisional games, there will be plenty of Maple Leaf and Canadien and Senator visits that will inevitably attract Canadian expats living in Florida to buy tickets to a game.
This, of course, would explain why the Eastern Conference realignment looks bizarre. The Atlantic is in blue; the Metropolitan, in green:
If the only goal were geographic continuity, the best alignment would have been with Pittsburgh and Columbus in the Atlantic Division and Florida and Tampa Bay in the Metropolitan (the name would have to be changed, of course). Instead, the Atlantic is a Frankenstein division – a forced association of two distant regions of North America.
Whether Bettman and the NHL went through this exact thought process during realignment discussions is unknown. But based on Bettman’s lack of a soul and general lust for anything resembling a profit, we can presume that at least part of the reason for the Atlantic’s curious structure was monetary. Which is fine – unless your team is from the Atlantic, or worse, Florida.
Further, the uneven number of teams in each conference is another unresolved issue: as it stands, the West has 14 teams, seven per division; the East has 16 teams, eight per division. Since the new rules dictate that the best-three teams from each division clinch a playoff spot – the other two spots go to the next highest ranked teams in each conference – it’ll automatically be more challenging for Eastern Conference teams to make the playoffs. So not only will the Atlantic Division be forced to endure unnecessarily long travel times, but it’ll also be challenged by an eighth team competing for the division’s three playoff spots.