Mike Johnson had just started his third season with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the fall of 1998 when his team benefited from a massive transformation.
After finishing last in the Central Division for two consecutive seasons, the Maple Leafs added Pat Quinn, a future Hall of Famer, as coach. They also signed free agent goalkeeper Curtis Joseph. To top it off, they switched from the Western Conference to the Eastern Conference.
Prior to the move, the Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings were the only two Western Conference teams in the eastern time zone. When the league expanded by four teams from 1998 to 2000, Ken Dryden, then President of the Maple Leafs, saw an opportunity to refocus. The move resulted in fewer trips west and faster recovery times.
It also meant getting home a decent hour after the street games.
“When you’re in the west, come home two, three, four in the morning,” said Johnson. “In the east you would play Montreal and after the game you would leave, you would be at home by 12:30 pm. And if you had a day off the next day, it would actually be a whole day off. You’ve definitely felt the difference over time. “
Toronto will continue to play in the same league as Montreal for the 2021 NHL season. However, adjustments caused by the coronavirus pandemic are creating a travel situation similar to the past. With unnecessary travel between the US and Canada restricted, the league has temporarily realigned its divisions to ensure that their Canadian teams can play in their own buildings at the start of the regular season, with 56 games on Wednesday.
So the new Northern Division was born. All seven Canadian clubs, from the Vancouver Canucks to the Montreal Canadiens more than 2,800 miles away, play exclusively against each other. The other three divisions – West, Central and East – each consist of eight teams and are also limited to games among themselves.
The North Division matchups will include cross country battles such as Ottawa and Edmonton, and Toronto and Calgary. Despite the obvious travel disadvantage teams in Canada, the mood behind the concept was positive among the participants.
“It’s going to be way over the top because the Canadian media, all websites and all conversations will be talking about the Canadian teams,” Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice told reporters on a video call last month. “It’ll be a little old-fashioned that it’s all about us. That will have a great vibe. “
The North Division teams play against each other nine to ten times this season. To account for distance and limit travel, teams enter cities and play a series of two or three games.
Baseball-style planning could add more intensity to the games. Johnson recalled his last three seasons when the NHL experimented with teams playing eight games against division opponents.
“It gets carried over because you don’t have time to forget about it or to relax when your opponent ran over your goalkeeper, for example,” said Johnson. “I just think that kind of emotion carries one game to the next, which is not a bad thing.”
This temporary realignment marks the latest chapter in a league with a history of geographic imbalances.
Ever since the NHL expanded from its original six teams in 1967, business interests have had a high priority over geography. When the Canucks entered the league in 1970, they played in the East Division with the Rangers, the Boston Bruins and their cousins, the Buffalo Sabers. The Chicago Blackhawks then moved to the West Division. The Canucks had consistent seasonal losses until they moved to a division for the 1974/75 season that was closer to their Western counterparts.
Geographical names were then replaced by the last names of prominent hockey figures. This was the only way to justify why the Canadiens and Los Angeles Kings, teams more than 2,850 miles apart, were together in the Norris Division from 1974 to 1981.
The NHL isn’t the only league with geographic misalignments. From 1969 to 1993, the Atlanta Braves played in the National League West. The Dallas Cowboys play in NFC East with three teams from the northeastern United States.
Sometimes a considerable trip is just the price one has to pay to play the game.
The Toronto Wolfpack, a professional team in the UK rugby league system, began playing in League 1, the lowest division, in 2017 and began a course where every road trip was a transatlantic affair.
“I think we probably paid a premium to bring us some high-level rugby players and bring us the best British players,” said Bob Hunter, who was the club’s 2019 chairman and chief executive officer.
In addition to recruiting costs, the team invested in training facilities in the UK that the players could use during extended stays in Europe. The investment seemed to be paying off. Interest in this sport grew and the team was promoted to the top division of the system, the Super League, in early 2020.
But as in all sports, the pandemic set in and the club withdrew from participation in 2020. His offer to rejoin the Super League in 2021 has been rejected.
The new North Division was built out of necessity, and as in other professional sports leagues, teams need to be flexible when an outbreak hits a particular team.
An additional one-off provision allows each NHL club to carry a taxi team of four to six players (with at least one goalkeeper), with the players participating in drills and traveling with the club without being on the active squad.
Three of the seven Canadian clubs – the Canucks, Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers – have their affiliates in the American Hockey League, which makes the Taxi Commission more important to them as their players would be subject to stricter quarantine rules if called up above .
“We are doing everything we can to protect our players as this will affect the team,” said Jim Benning, Canucks general manager.
Once the league reaches the final four teams in the playoffs, the East Division’s winning team, made up of teams in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Washington, DC, has covered fewer miles than their peers.
This is when the Northern Division can feel the most fatigue.
“It’s been a really interesting year and now you’re playing against teams with more time zones than any other group,” said Maple Leafs winger Zach Hyman. “It’s an anomaly and this season is going to feel like a sprint. But there should be great rivalries. “