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Rocky Wirtz says NHL realignment will be great for rivalries

Dino Ciccarelli MinnesotNorth Stars used have blood feuds with Blackhawks. | Steve Babineau~Getty Images

Dino Ciccarelli and the Minnesota North Stars used to have blood feuds with the Blackhawks. | Steve Babineau~Getty Images

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Updated: January 8, 2012 10:32AM



Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz fondly recalls the Hawks’ games against the old Minnesota North Stars. He remembers all the chants, the fights and the feverish emotions that swept over the crowds at both stadiums.

It was hockey at its best. It was a rivalry, and then some.

“You couldn’t wait to play the North Stars again,” Wirtz said in a phone interview from California on Tuesday. “I remember how they used to chant, ‘Dino sucks.’ Then the goaltenders would get in on it. They were good. There is nothing like a good rivalry.”

It’s those memories that played into Wirtz’s support for commissioner Gary Bettman’s plan for conference realignment, which got the approval from the NHL board of governors Monday night.

Bettman took into consideration historic rivalries when drawing up his plan to balance travel and make the NHL a four-conference league and no longer one divided by East and West. For a commissioner who gets booed by fans on seemingly every occasion, Bettman got this one right.

From the Hawks’ perspective, Wirtz said the team could benefit from not having to travel to the West Coast as much and that TV ratings could be better with fewer late starts.

But it was the renewal of the old divisional playoffs, in which the first two rounds are played within the same new conference, that should really pay off. It will help foster new rivalries as old ones grow to new levels.

“The best hockey is when you have rivalries,” Wirtz said.

The Hawks might not get to see the hated Vancouver Canucks as much as they do now, but their once-heated rivalry with the St. Louis Blues is getting hot again, and the Detroit Red Wings, who pushed for a move to the East in the current alignment, are still around.

“You don’t have to buy a program to know who you’re playing,” Wirtz said. “In the days of old, when we played the Minnesota North Stars, you knew who Dino Ciccarelli was, and you couldn’t wait for him to come back in the building. You’re going to see these teams a fair amount. So you’re going to get to know these players a lot.”

The Hawks will play the Red Wings, Blues, Dallas Stars, Columbus Blue Jackets, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets five or six times starting next season.

The Hawks are in one of the eight-team conferences, so three teams would play each other six times, and four will play each other five times. The schedule would rotate the next season.

Four teams from each conference make the playoffs. So there are ample occasions for animosity to build within each conference, which are yet to be named.

The winners of each conference would meet in the third round before the Stanley Cup finals. Bettman will let the general managers decide in their March meetings how the last two matchups are decided.

One of the best parts of the new alignment, which came about because of the team in Winnipeg, is that every team will play each other. The move will aid teams that typically struggle attendance-wise because fans for teams such as the Hawks, Maple Leafs and Rangers travel well.

“Every team wants to see an Original Six team in their building,” Wirtz said. “The schedule with the way it was, you just didn’t have a chance to get them in your building. It’s important that you get to see that team at least once in your building.”



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