At each and every level of sports, from the smallest childrens league to the seniors tour on the PGA, there is no single word or concept that contributes more to the success and growth that league or the individuals within it like rivalry. About the only thing you can get the most rabid homers of the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens to agree on is that either team is far better than the Toronto Maple Leafs. The “I don’t break for Yankees Fans” bumper sticker was seen more often on the cars of Red Sox fans for years than snow tires in February. In basketball the pure and undiluted hatred between fans of the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics has nearly transcended the sport and elevated many of them into knowledgeable basketball fans and not merely boosters of the hometown colors. In football the rivalries are wide and varied, the Dallas Cowboys, Redskins, and 49ers were always out for blood, the Patriots and Colts have rivalries up and down their rosters starting with their franchise cornerstones Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

With rivalries comes passion, and with passion comes attention, fans and revenue. In the first season out of the lockout the Boston Bruins averaged about 3000 more fans per game than the Carolina Hurricanes, despite having a wretched season where they finished 26th in the league. The Bruins renewed their rivalries with the Leafs, and the Canadiens. The entire Southeast division was still new enough to squeak, and still has yet to develop the bone deep hatred on the part of fan-bases and the instant intensity that typifies the Battle of Alberta, or the unlove between the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils.

Anyone who’s has ever been to a game where two rivals are playing knows the difference in the stands, on the ice and even in the press box between that just another game.  We’ve just seen some of the first Californian players brought into the NHL, and other southern markets are making their attack. But in order for the sport to not just survive but flourish I think it’s time for the NHL to move away from the current balanced schedule to something that places a higher emphasis on divisional and conference play.  I eat, drink and sleep hockey and could watch six or seven games a day without getting tired of it, but lets face it, the games between two teams who only see each other once or twice a year and have never met in the playoffs are a bit less interesting.

Despite the excitement and drama of last nights Bruins vs Stars game or the Stanley Cup rematches with the Flyers and BlackHawks, inter-division games are generally low spirited games with little to recommend them. Watching the Islanders and Coyotes square off even if you can name twelve members of each roster without slowing down is nowhere near as entertaining as a Devils – Islanders or Coyotes – Kings tilt would be. Part of that rivalry is familiarity, and knowing the skills and skulduggery you’ll see on the ice. Devils fans look forward to games against the Rangers in part because they know Sean Avery will be in the lineup and up to his usual antics. A decade ago Bruins fans were continually frustrated by games against Hasek and the Sabres, but couldn’t not tune in because they knew the game would be intense and no matter how many times the good guys were stymied, the level of skill on display would be awesome.

Need further proof? Take a walk outside the Boston Garden on a Bruins game day, go look at the vendors on the street.  You’ll find all sorts of gear lauding Bruins past and present. Everything you can imagine from PJ Stock, Rick Middleton and Bobby Orr to Tyler Seguin, Zdeno Chara and Milan Lucic. The things touting the local boys are only half the story. You’ll also find scores of masterpieces and lesser works that target the oppositions fans and players. A favorite of fans across the region last year was the Bruins own sign outside the Boston Garden that said “Never date a Flyers Fan, even if she shaves her mustache.” a t-shirt that reads “Habs suck and Carey swallows.” was so popular the vendor selling them blew through his entire inventory before well before the game started. I doubt its much different in any major market with a true rival. What you won’t find outside the Garden is single item that makes any reference to even despised players like Steve Ott from other conferences, nor will you find anything about superstars Lidstorm, Thornton or Sedin(s) because in the end unless it is a playoff meeting those teams and players just don’t matter.

For it’s long term growth the best thing the NHL could do would be to ditch the current schedule format. I love good hockey, but I don’t need to see the Bruins faceoff with the Kings in January or October. Seeing Vancouver and Florida cross swords is even less of a priority. Would I tune into a Calgary vs Edmonton game? Absolutely, even as rarely seen as those two teams are if there’s no short of passion in that rivalry, and if I can’t watch my home team, like any other sports fan I wanna know both teams are going to go after it with a will and a passion.

Last nights Dallas Stars at Boston Bruins games was one of the most exciting hockey games of the season. An unfortunate byproduct of the energy that infected fans, coaches, bloggers, newscasters and yes the players was a careless hit by Daniel Paille.  Paille, a former first round pick who has a career high in penalty minutes of 35, and even including those assessed last night is at a total of 26 on the year and 102 for his career hit Raymond Sawada knocking the rookie out of his first NHL game.

It was just about a year ago when Matt Cooke, veteran of multiple suspensions, who has had three seasons individual seasons where he eclipsed 100 penalty minutes, obliterated Marc Savard the hue and cry was limited to a small number of people. The usual handwringers foremost, Bruins fans just behind and fans of Marc Savard the player sprinkled in.  Later in the year when another player was spattered all over the ice, a similarly small murmur of national attention.  Yet, by the start of the new season a rule had been added.

This year, Sidney Crosby who for good or ill is the face of the NHL was concussed, on hits far less vicious than the one his teammated dished out, the outrage reached critical mass. Concussions because a topic of discussion across the hockey universe and the ebb and flow between those trying to eliminate all hitting (a small but vocal minority) and the realists who know how quickly a no touch league would die (and deserve too) was animated, illustrative and ultimately good for the sport.

Last night we saw Andrew Ference, who because of his activism is no longer a player representative to the NHLPA, speak out against his own teammate.  It should be noted that not one of the Pittsburgh Penguins said a single word against the hit by Cooke. Over just a year, we have seen at least a small shift in the NHL’s hivemind. Will this lead to less concussions as players continue to grow larger, faster, and stronger? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. But if the players and league can eliminate deliberate head hunting like the Cooke hit and others that came before it, we as fans, can at least walk away from each game knowing all reasonable efforts to protect the player and the game have been made. It doesn’t matter if you agree with the decision on the Paille hit or not an action that the league ruled would be worthy of discipline was taken, and a fair punishment handed down.

Much as any hockey purist would rather see the All Star game die a death as painful as it is to watch the tepid refraction of the highest sport while knowing real hockey could be played at that very moment.  The All Star game is the shuffle footed lurching zombie that has suddenly taken the lead role in a A MidSummer Nights Dream. Just as the season is starting to settle in and teams have finally grasped their identities, just as teams are taking in that last deep breath before the run to the playoffs, and just as football is going away, right in that window between the football playoffs and when pitcher and catchers report the NHL squanders its chance to grab national attention.  Instead of an event that is designed to go for the hearts and minds of people grieving the loss of their football teams Sunday showdowns, and not yet being fed their 162 doses of “the great american pastime” there exists a heaping pile of nothing.  Since we know the All Star Game is when the NHL does it’s most impressive pandering to sponsors, thinking it will go away is foolish. So it needs to be fixed.

Some suggestions:

  • Celebrity officials. Starlets like Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift could draw young audiences and serving as linesmen would keep them in the public eye. Since most of the audience for any given hockey game is male, having them dressed in something a bit more flattering than the standard uniform wouldn’t hurt a bit. Besides, watching guys like Patrick Kane and Matt Duchene flirt with them could be highly entertaining all by itself. Having MMA stars like Urijah Faber, Carlos Condit, or Cain Velesquez as the officials would be a draw and might pull in some of the MMA crowd that doesn’t watch team sports currently.
  • Alumni or active player officials. This would be a boon to the NHL marketing department, instead of blacking out the jerseys of players who don’t get voted into the All Star game but were a part of the tv campaign have them play referee, goal judge or time keeper. Biases don’t matter since its a throw away game, and players like Andrew Ladd,  or Sean Avery could be highly entertaining with the orange stripes. Giving a nod to retired greats like Bobby Clark, Rick Middleton, Chris Chelios, Andy Moog or Patrick Roy could only provide a gateway back in to some of the people who feel the NHL’s current administration has alienated more traditional hockey fans. In either case, the celebrities, alumni and active players could be rotated out after a period.
  • Take the helmets off. Its not a real game, its not played at game speed, and no one is firing shots at 100 miles an hour. Taking off the helmets will make the players feel more approachable and for casual fans drawn into the spectacle, giving them every opportunity to form an attachment to a player and to the game is crucial.
  • Video introductions for players, similar to what you see in football. Just a short clip that gives a soundbite of info on the player, and gives the audience something they might not know about the player.
  • Make it a charity game. Allow fans to pick the charities to be benefited by each goal, penalty or save. Pick multiple charities (and not any of the NHL or franchise foundations well know charities like Habitat for Humanity or UNICEF) and let it build some buzz that way.

Any one or two of these could provide enough interest if executed properly to minimize the letdown that is the All Star Game after the skills competition and the weeks and months of build up to the game.