Let’s take a moment to pity the average American hockey fan.
Everyone wants this guy’s money, but no decision maker in the NHL wants to hear his opinion. This is the same person who inspired the glowing puck. No one is going to take him seriously again.
If he has any ideas on where the game should be headed, it’d be really helpful if he shouted them into a pillow. Just buy your Bruins jersey and shut up, pal. Canada’s got this.
Why isn’t the NHL a bigger deal in the United States? It isn’t violence, or the lack of goal scoring, or the complexity of the game. The real barrier to entry is America’s instinctive understanding that they are and always will be second-class fans of the sport. Like soccer, it will never be their game. And America doesn’t like to be second-best at anything.
A lot of strange things have happened during this pandemic season, but the game hasn’t looked much different at ice level. The only truly unusual theme to the year has been bending over backwards to keep Canada interested, at the expense of the United States.
How else would you explain the all-Canadian North Division? Aside from convenience, there was no urgent need to keep the league’s Canadian teams in Canada. As the Canucks proved, they weren’t any safer up here. It’s not as though Canadians were going to get a chance to go watch them live. One sub-zero TV soundstage is very much like any other.
Sliding into replacement arenas down south, a la the Blue Jays and the Raptors, would’ve kept the normal alignments in place. It might even have had some barnstorming potential in terms of growing secondary local fanbases.
Instead, Canada stamped its feet and the North Division sprang up. Mostly, it seems, because it sounded like a cool experiment. It was the closest the NHL will get to the hockey geek’s idea of nirvana – returning to the purity of the Original Six.
In theory, Connor McDavid vs. Auston Matthews nine times seemed like broadcasting gold. In reality, it got stale after a few meetings. One of the laws of large sample sizes is people get tired of large samples.
With so little variation possible among seven teams, even a casual observer could guess at the final order of finish and have got it pretty close to right.
The result is exactly what the boys at HQ dreamed up. Toronto was good. Edmonton was good enough. The Canadiens snuck in to add some nostalgic spice. The Jets are there to even out the geography. The teams that didn’t make it never had much hope, and so can’t be that disappointed.
What does it feel like to arrive at a near-perfect alignment of the Canadian hockey fan’s hopes and expectations? Good, I guess. Good and a bit boring.
Sure, Toronto vs. Montreal in the first round of the playoffs is a nostalgic callback to our collective past. It would be moreso if the matchup hadn’t been gerrymandered into existence.
We don’t watch sports for certainty or predictability. If the team that was supposed to win won every year, sports would collapse.
If you prefer disorder and disappointment, you’ll be delighted by how things turned out in the other, far less important three-quarters of the NHL. That’s become a ratings apocalypse for the other national broadcaster.
No Chicago. No New York Rangers. No Detroit, no Philadelphia and no L.A. But, hey, great news. America got that Carolina-Nashville matchup it needs, but didn’t know it wanted.
The North Division was sold as a way to reduce pandemic risk, which was sort of true. It reduced the pandemic risks for some teams. Just a few. If NHLers had been seriously worried about COVID, they would have all demanded to play in Canada. That they didn’t means they weren’t.
In actuality, this change was a corporate welfare policy benefiting Canadian hockey. It had only one certain result – guaranteeing this country a spot in the semi-final stage of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
It wouldn’t seem so brazen if Canadian franchises had shown any ability over the past decade to manage this by themselves. But they haven’t. So Big Brother stepped in to give the least needy a helping hand. Hooray for us. We gamed the system.
If a Canadian team ends up winning this whole thing, does that make it an asterisk achievement? Not necessarily. Not unless they don’t do it again for another decade. Then it’s worse than that. Then it was charity.
Gary Bettman has already made clear that the divisional realignment was a one-time thing. The purists enjoy theatrically disagreeing with everything the NHL commissioner says, but not this time. Even the fanbases enjoying the temporary benefits of the North Division don’t want to see it made permanent. When you reduce the league to fractions, that’s what it becomes – a fraction of itself.
In a weird way, this is what hockey felt like in the 1970s and eighties. You knew there were players in the Soviet Union who were as good or better than the guys you watched every night, but you only rarely got to see them up close and personal. That can’t be allowed to happen again.
That will be the one good thing that comes out of the all-Canadian division. For the next generation or so, whenever some Canadian (and it will always be one of us) pipes up with a let’s-tear-it-all-down-and-go-back-to-the-good-ol’-days plan for the NHL, we can say we tried that. It sounded more exciting than it turned out to be.