Force-fed rivalries don't sit well for all

Some Lightning players argue great games come from history, not geography.

Published October 7, 2005

Vinny Lecavalier said the NHL should have put a spotlight on the Lightning and Flames this week.

One game between the 2004 Stanley Cup finalists the day before the rest of the league got started.

Calgary gets a shot at revenge. Tampa Bay tries to live up to its championship. National television coverage in the United States and Canada, and fans in both cities are pushed headfirst into a new season.

"That," the Lightning center said, "would have been really cool."

Instead, thanks to the NHL's what's-old-is-new unbalanced schedule, the teams that knocked each other silly for seven games can meet this season only in a Cup rematch.

In fact, Tampa Bay will not play any team from the Northwest Division that also includes the Canucks, Avalanche, Oilers and Wild.

It's the price paid for the NHL's attempt to force-feed rivalries by having division foes play eight times (four home, four away) as they did in the 1980s and two more times than 2003-04.

To accommodate those extra games, each division doesn't play one from the other conference.

"What you're looking for is the geographic rivalries that are possible when you play more divisional games," said Mike Murphy, the NHL's vice president of hockey operations.

"It stimulates interest with the fans and with players and it becomes a more watchable, more enjoyable event because of the rivalry, the geographic proximity, the importance in the division."

The Lightning gets a taste of division-specific scheduling in back-to-back games with the Panthers tonight at the Bank Atlantic Center in Sunrise and Saturday at the St. Pete Times Forum.

It is just the start.

From Oct. 20 through Nov. 11, Tampa Bay faces the Thrashers four times. It plays the Capitals four times by Thanksgiving, the Panthers three times in 15 days through April 3 and the Thrashers three times in 13 days through April 11.

The Red Wings and Blackhawks play three straight games from Oct. 29-Nov. 1. The Hurricanes vs. Capitals and Canucks vs. Oilers also have three-game sets.

The hope is the playoff-like schedule spurs more intense games as well as some gnashing of teeth between players, anything to give the games an edge.

"By the time the third games roll around there could be some real battles developing," Murphy said.

Perhaps, but some Lightning players said rivalries aren't created by just throwing teams together.

That is especially true in the Southeast, where Tampa Bay, the Thrashers, Hurricanes and Capitals don't have the long histories and continual playoff encounters that fuel rivalries such as the Maple Leafs and Canadiens in the Northeast, the Islanders and Rangers in the Atlantic and the Red Wings and Blackhawks in the Central.

"I just don't buy into this that we're going to be big rivals with Florida," center Brad Richards said. "No seasons have come down to the final game to determine the playoffs. No team has put the other out. Until that happens, I don't buy it right now."

"Just because of where you live or where a city is located doesn't create anything," center Tim Taylor said. "It has to come from the prior year when you wanted to beat a team so bad. That's where it comes from. And that comes from the playoffs."

Taylor should know.

As a member of the Red Wings he was involved in one of the NHL's greatest rivalries as Detroit battled the Avalanche in a violent, seasons-long feud that began during the 1996 West final when Detroit center Kris Draper suffered serious injuries from Claude Lemieux's cross-check into the boards.

"They went on to win the Stanley Cup and the next year the rivalry was just huge," Taylor said. "Every game was massive."

Taylor said the Lightning's biggest rival is probably the Flyers, whom Tampa Bay faced twice in the playoffs and last season beat in a grueling seven-game East final.

Murphy agreed rivalries in the Southeast won't develop without playoff matchups. The eight-game formula is merely a primer.

A good one, Panthers goalie Jamie McLennan said.

"I sense it," he said. "I sense Atlanta is going to be a big rival, too. Any southern team where they're in your back yard or you're in theirs, there's grounds for a rivalry."

"And," noted coach Jacques Martin, "you start the first week back to back, that's good fuel for a rivalry."

So was the bruising seven-game Cup series between the Lightning and Flames. But the NHL's new world focuses on a bigger picture.

"Tampa Bay and Calgary would be an enjoyable game, but I don't know if there would be as much fire as people expect," Murphy said. "It's out of conference. It's out of division."

As for the in-division scheduling, Lightning general manager Jay Feaster said, "You have to look at what's good for the league overall, and overall I think it is a good and exciting thing. It's just unfortunate our division is still a work in progress as far as creating those rivalries.

"But I think this year there is going to be parity within. There are going to be some battles. Hopefully those battles will help those rivalries form."

And put a spotlight on the division.