Homecoming for the Wild

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 6, 2011 - 11:31 AM

The new NHL format means that starting next season, Minnesota will leave the Northwest and rejoin such regional foes as Chicago and Detroit.

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Wild owner Craig Leipold got his wish to leave the Northwest Division.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune file

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SAN JOSE, CALIF. - After months of trying to persuade his fellow governors to do "what's right for the NHL," Wild owner Craig Leipold got his wish.

Starting next season, the Wild no longer will be in the Northwest Division with Colorado and three Canadian teams -- Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver.

Monday night in Pebble Beach, Calif., the NHL Board of Governors approved a radical realignment that ridded the league of six five-team divisions and created a new four-conference NHL with seven or eight teams each. The board authorized Commissioner Gary Bettman to implement the proposal, pending input from the NHL Players' Association.

The conferences are not named yet, but the Wild is in Conference B -- expected to be called the Central Conference -- along with Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Nashville, St. Louis and Winnipeg.

"I think it's going to be a good division," Wild winger Dany Heatley said. "Obviously, travel is a lot better for us. There are some real good teams in this division, and it's going to be very competitive. We lose some big rivalries out west, but there will be new ones coming."

This was the type of alignment Leipold had craved since purchasing the Wild in 2008.

The reasons? 1) Better geographical rivalries; 2) shorter flights; 3) fiscally more desirable; 4) less occasions through customs; 5) earlier start times, meaning fans can watch more road games on TV without staying up until midnight.

The team released a statement saying: "The Wild is thrilled with the NHL's realignment plan. This restores more traditional and regional rivalries with Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, St. Louis and Winnipeg. In addition, more Wild fans will be able to watch road games as a result of having more of our conference opponents playing in the Central time zone."

Leipold and General Manager Chuck Fletcher declined to comment Monday night, but on Sunday, Leipold said, "I think all the Western Conference teams would vote for [the four-conference format]. It works to their benefit, and I think there are enough Eastern Conference governors that will frankly do the right thing for the NHL.

"We need 20 votes. We get five or six from the Eastern Conference, and it should pass. There would be a lot of winners if that were the case -- teams, fans and the NHL."

Reportedly, there was an hour of discussion, then a vote that went 26-4 in favor of the new format.

The other conferences are:

Conference A: Anaheim, Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose and Vancouver.

Conference C: Boston, Buffalo, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Toronto.

Conference D: Carolina, New Jersey, the New York Islanders, the New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington.

In the Wild's conference, as well as the other eight-team conference, teams would play either five or six times in a season on a rotating basis. In the seven-team conferences, teams would play six times each. Teams play home-and-home against every team in the other conferences.

The top four teams in each conference qualify for the playoffs. Like the divisional playoffs years ago in the NHL, the first two rounds will solely be intraconference. In the first round, the first-place team would play the fourth-place team and the second-place team would play the third with the winners squaring off in the second. The way the playoffs are re-seeded from there will be determined at the general managers' meetings in March.

With the Wild being in an eight-team conference, it makes the road to the playoffs tougher than teams in the seven-team conferences.

"It's hard to say whether or not it helps us," Wild center Matt Cullen said. "I'm sure every team in the league is evaluating that right now. It's a big change for everyone. It'll be interesting to see how it plays out."

An hour after the NHL announced the approval, NHLPA spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon issued a statement saying: "Realignment requires an agreement between the league and the NHLPA. We look forward to continuing our discussions with the league regarding this matter."

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