DULUTH – Blake Wheeler remembers Xcel Energy Center’s ice shaking under his skates, and this wasn’t for some playoff game.
It was Feb. 16, 2012 — the only time the Winnipeg Jets have visited the Wild’s home turf during the regular season since relocating from Atlanta.
“Our fans seemed to come in busloads,” said Wheeler, the former Breck School star and Gophers forward who now plays for Winnipeg. “We must have had 5,000, 10,000 fans it felt like in the crowd. It was so loud. It feels like this rivalry is budding, and with both teams in such close proximity, we’re going to see a lot of fans making that trek back and forth.”
Much to the delight of the Wild, which had to constantly cross time zones and borders its first 12 seasons in the Northwest Division, and the Jets, who were forced to continue in the Eastern Conference’s Southeast Division for two seasons, the NHL has realigned.
Of course, Wild fans might be subjected to more nonstop, raucous “Go Jets Go!” chants in their own barn because of it. Jets fans even came to the X in droves during last month’s exhibition game.
“Canadian fans are crazy and people can’t get tickets up in Winnipeg, so they’re going to drive down to Minny to watch games,” Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien said.
The Wild moves into the Central Division and faces Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, Nashville, St. Louis and Winnipeg four or five times a season.
At least through the 2015-16 season, the NHL has gone from six divisions to four, with 14 teams in the Western Conference and 16 in the Eastern Conference.
Five teams are most excited by the move — the Wild, Jets and Dallas Stars, who used to play in the Pacific Division with Phoenix and the three California teams, and the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets, who move to the more geographically-logical Eastern Conference.
The Pacific Division now consists of Anaheim, Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose and Vancouver. The Metropolitan (already dubbed Metro) Division houses Carolina, Columbus, New Jersey, the Islanders, the Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington, while the new Atlantic Division includes Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Toronto.
The top three teams in each division make the playoffs along with two “wild cards” per conference. The first two rounds of the playoffs will be played inside one’s division.
“I think it’ll take us awhile to figure it all out, but it brings the NHL back to where we used to be in the 1980s when those division rivalries created a lot of animosity between teams,” Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. “How it impacts every team is different because the schedule is completely imbalanced as well as how you make the playoffs, but for us, it’s unbelievable because of the travel.”
Wild fans should love it. First, every NHL team will come to St. Paul at least once. Second, there will be a lot fewer road games starting after 7:30 p.m. Central Time.
Fourteen of the Wild’s 41 road games this season start after 7:30 p.m. local time. To put that in perspective, 14 of the Wild’s 24 road games during last season’s condensed schedule due to the lockout began after 7:30 p.m.
From a player perspective, the wear and tear should be less. There’s less traveling west, less crossing Canadian customs into Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, less arriving back in Minnesota from road trips at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning.
The Wild plays 68 games in the Eastern or Central time zones this season and don’t play west of the Central time zone until Nov. 30 in Denver. In 2011-12, the Wild didn’t even play a road game in its own time zone until Dec. 13 at Winnipeg.
“Realignment was a no-brainer for us,” Wild owner Craig Leipold said. “It’s good for our players, good for our fans, good for our TV ratings and it’s good for our pocketbook because travel costs are less and our TV ratings always drop as we get into the 10:30, 11 p.m. time period.”
Teams to beat
The Central Division will be tough. It’s hard to imagine Chicago, the defending Stanley Cup champion, and St. Louis, many pundits’ preseason Cup favorites, not going 1-2 in either order. Plus, the Wild often struggles in Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas and even Nashville. Winnipeg, and its intimate, ear-piecing crowd of 15,000, can be an intimidating place to play.
“But every division is tough in this league,” Leipold said.
Most importantly, the Wild will be able to develop a true rival or two. In the past, Vancouver was probably Minnesota’s biggest rival, but ask any Canucks fan, and it’s doubtful they’d reply Minnesota as Vancouver’s biggest.
“A team like Winnipeg holds great promise as a team that our fans can grow to hate very quickly,” Fletcher said.
St. Louis Blues captain David Backes, the former Spring Lake Park and Minnesota State Mankato standout, says this will be tremendous for Wild and Blues fans.
“It won’t be long for the rivalries to be rekindled,” Backes said. “St. Louis-Minnesota seems to dial it up every time. Now Wild fans will see Chicago more like the old North Stars-Blackhawks rivalry. And I know Winnipeg will be a natural rivalry.
“I think we’ll all be fighting to establish territory. Like St. Louis-Minnesota, I don’t know if the rivalry’s boiling yet, but there’s water in the pot and heat underneath it.”