By Steve Silverman
(CBS) — The Chicago Blackhawks have been treated shabbily by the National Hockey League.
For those who are regular followers of the sport, it’s no surprise that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman made a poor decision, because his career has been littered with them.
His decision to lock players out three times – 1994-95 (partial season), 2004-05 (full season), 2012-13 (partial season) – are his signature moves. However, his decisions to put teams in markets like Miami, Phoenix and Atlanta at the expense of Quebec City and other more deserving spots lack critical thinking and expertise.
He thought that if he put teams into those southern markets, it would mean the NHL would suddenly gain popularity in non-hockey markets. It has not worked out well.
The NHL’s latest decision to realign because of geographical inequities has put the Blackhawks in a nasty hole. While it made seemed logical to move the Winnipeg Jets to the Western Conference and Detroit and Columbus to the Eastern Conference, the decision has left Chicago without any of its Original Six rivalries intact.
The Blackhawks’ main business in the NHL is winning the Stanley Cup, and based on two titles in the last four years and a roster chock full of talent — Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford — they should be in a good position to compete for it again.
But there’s an 82-game schedule to complete before the playoffs get underway. If you look at the Blackhawks’ current division, you see one decent rival in the St. Louis Blues, but the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets have no historical connection.
Those historical rivals help give a regular season more pizzazz and interest. A visit from the Stars or Jets means little to long-time fans except a chance to gain two more points in the standings.
Certainly, Rocky Wirtz understood what realignment meant to his team, but he has not gone public with any dissatisfaction. Sacrificing for the good of the league is a part of his gameplan and he is to be admired for that, but it’s a decision that both he and the team’s fans will come to regret.
It’s simply not fair to isolate the Blackhawks from the other Original Six teams. Here’s how we would have handled realignment to keep interest at a high level throughout the league for years to come.
Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Detroit, Minnesota, St. Louis, Toronto, Winnipeg.
Anaheim, Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver.
Buffalo, Carolina, Florida, Nashville, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Washington.
Boston, Columbus, Montreal, New Jersey, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Ottawa.
In this setup, there are two divisions that each have three Original Six teams. The Blackhawks would have rivalries with the Red Wings and Maple Leafs that could sustain their fans during the long season.
The Bruins, Canadiens and Rangers would be together as well.
The Original Six gives the NHL its history and identity and one team should not be forced to go it alone. It’s not a matter of survival, it’s a matter of putting the best product on the ice.
They have failed to do so, but we have given them a road map when the NHL expands to 32 teams, which almost certainly will happen because four divisions with eight teams is much easier to schedule.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.