Expansion hurts NHL

Jeff Casale

When I arrived at the United Center in Chicago Dec. 29, I was awestruck to see so many Detroit Red Wing fans in attendance. It was as if the entire Motor City commuted to Chicago to see their mighty Red Wings take on the struggling Blackhawks, only to watch the Hawks pull out a 3-2 overtime victory.But it wasn’t so much about what was happening down on the ice as it was about which team’s fans were the loudest, most volatile and proudest. One thing is for certain; both teams, as well as fan bases, take the rivalry seriously – and without that, a game that virtually means nothing becomes one of the biggest games of the season.

However, with recent expansion and at the least two more teams expected to be added to the league in the next five years, the NHL has grown from an eight-team league to a 29-team league. It’s with that expansion that rivalries have deteriorated due to the ever-changing divisions and thinning talent pool.

In the beginning the East was the beast. New York’s Rangers and Islanders, Boston’s Bruins, Buffalo’s Sabers and Philly’s Flyers were the brutes and backbone of the NHL. And let’s not forget the great Canadian teams from Montreal and Edmonton, and oh yes, that Vancouver team in the mid-’80s was good.

But now the game has moved out West. Franchises like Colorado and Dallas have become more dominant. Speedy teams like Anaheim, Los Angeles and Phoenix are possibly setting the trend for the future.

Rivalries are becoming a lost art, and with 29 teams in the league, gritty competitions between the Rangers and the New Jersey Devils only happen four times a year. Four games – maybe five, but the league likes to balance out the home and away factor. As fans we must hope and pray that rivalry teams get to face each other in the playoffs, because then we’ll get to see the physicalness and ruthlessness of the game at its peak, seeing as many as seven games between the clubs.

Rivalries build a fire within a team, and as a fan you can see that fire burning in a few players. I stood and watched Tony Amonte skate harder against Detroit than he would three nights later against Vancouver. I watched goalie Jocelyn Thiabult put on a clinic against the feared Detroit line of Federov, Yzerman and Shanahan, only to become mediocre against Carolina the next game.

What I do understand, though, is that the game of hockey will forever be evolving and that from expansion there may be new rivalries formed, but for right now, the clashes between the Hawks and the Minnesota Wild just aren’t as ferocious as the ones with St. Louis.

Die-hard rivalries aren’t entirely lost yet, and the tradition of hard-nosed hockey can be found in most of the cities across the nation and Canada. But soon, there will be that feeling of emptiness that sits in arenas and fans alike. The games may become less heart-felt and more of a going-through-the-motions process.

But until that time, we will have the great rivalries and, as fans of hockey, should cherish them while we still can.