Chicago GM wants realignment to divide U.S., Canada

December 16, 1990|By Mike Kiley | Mike Kiley,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Bob Pulford is a Canadian. He once played with the proud Toronto Maple Leaf on his jersey.

But at the risk of sounding like a traitor, the Blackhawks senior vice president believes steps will be taken soon by the National Hockey League to assure that no all-Canadian championship series is ever again a possibility.

Too much Canada is bad for business in the United States, even when that business has a strong Northland flavor.

"If we are ever to go anywhere with this league and make inroads into the U.S. market, we have to align all of the Canadian teams in one conference," Pulford said. "I think there's a strong possibility that will happen in June."

That's when the NHL will decide in which divisions to place its three new clubs -- San Jose, Calif., Tampa and Ottawa. The San Jose Sharks have a temporary home in the Smythe Division because they begin play next season, while the Lightning from Florida and the Senators from Ontario won't open until 1992-93.

Pulford, considered to be just to the right of Ronald Reagan in some beliefs, will try to convince his fellow management moguls to throw aside established precepts and accept a radical NHL transformation.

One of these ideas is to group only U.S. teams into one conference. Let's say it's the Campbell, for argument's sake.

"I'd take the Patrick Division out of the Wales Conference and link it with our Norris Division in the Campbell," Pulford said.

Under Pulford's realignment, the Patrick would retain four clubs -- New York Rangers and Islanders, Philadelphia and New Jersey. It would pick up two new members: Hartford and Tampa.

The Hawks have an underlying reason for the shakeup. They want Wayne Gretzky and Los Angeles in the Norris. But Pulford contends there is a larger issue at stake here.

"To play Los Angeles in a division that has all Canadian clubs, the way it is now, is unfair," Pulford said. "Bruce McNall [Kings owner] doesn't want to be there, either. They want to be with us in the Norris, or at least in the Patrick.

"Los Angeles fans can't relate to rivalries against Canadian cities. They are used to U.S. city rivalries in other sports -- basketball, football, baseball. They want to see more of Boston, Chicago, Detroit and so on.

"Even though Edmonton and Calgary [two of the four Canadian teams now in the Kings' Smythe Division] have won six of the last seven Stanley Cups between them, the Los Angeles community has no association with them.

"What happens to Los Angeles when Gretzky is finished playing? They must establish some rivalries with U.S. teams by playing them more."

Pulford naturally thinks San Jose should accompany the Kings into the Norris. This pair needs to build an emotional rivalry in California.

The only club Pulford would toss out of the current Norris setup is Toronto, which would land in an Adams Division anchored by four East Coast clubs: Boston, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Washington.

The Adams' wild card would be Winnipeg. Pulford can't find a spot he likes for the Jets. He doesn't want them in the Norris because he considers them a poor attendance draw, so he sends them into the Adams as somewhat of an afterthought.

Pulford would bunch three traditional powerhouses in the Smythe: Edmonton, Calgary and Montreal. Then there would be Vancouver, Quebec and Ottawa to balance it off.

"There are some natural rivalries in the divisional arrangement we have now," Pulford said, "and those shouldn't be tampered with. But the rest of the thinking has to be scratched, and we have to start back at zero.

"It's going to be a lot of hard work to come to a decision. The key to the whole thing is the schedule. That's got to change.

"Where we have eight games with division opponents now, we should look at a schedule with maybe a few less division games and a few more games within the conference. Maybe it'd work out where we play teams in the other conference just twice, once home and away.

"Time zones are important. Los Angeles has to consider starting some home games at 6 p.m. if they come into the Norris. That would allow games in the Midwest to start on television at 8 in Chicago, St. Louis and Minnesota and 9 in Detroit.

"The thinking has to go beyond geographical, which has been pretty much the basis for the way the league is now. There's a lot to be taken into consideration."

Pulford sees his proposal as the first step in paving the way for several more U.S. cities to enter the NHL in a few years.

"There were some good franchises that didn't make it," he said of the recent NHL meeting to award teams to Tampa and Ottawa.

"Houston withdrew its application, but they'll be back. They just weren't ready. Same with Miami. If we get a Houston, eventually I think we'll get a Dallas. And we have to take another look at Seattle.

"Right now, the NHL is heavy with Eastern seaboard cities. We have to study and include places like Houston, Dallas, Seattle and Miami if we're going to take this league into a broader market.

"I actually thought they'd put off awarding new franchises for a year. But I understand why the league did it. The two groups had the money. Some others simply didn't have it."

Pulford is cautious in predicting how Tampa and Ottawa will fare. "There's a feeling of hope, but I'm not 100 percent sure about them," he said.

He is sure that Chicago should be one of the cities that sees Gretzky more than once or twice a year, as the present alignment dictates.

And he's also sure he has a fight on his hands to convince a majority in the NHL to see it his way.

"Most of the teams were against it when we talked last week," he said. "But they've got to expand their minds and take a hard look at the future."

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