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.