Wild fans should gain from renewed rivalries

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSOMRUSSO@STARTRIBUNE.COM
  • Updated: December 7, 2011 - 12:16 AM

The team is elated that it'll have more games against Midwest-based foes such as Chicago and Detroit and fewer in the Mountain and Pacific time zones.

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When the realignment takes effect in 2012-13, players like Wild defenseman Clayton Stoner, left, will see a lot more of the Chicago Blackhawks and their superstar Jonathan Toews.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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SAN JOSE, CALIF. - As chief operating officer of the Wild, Matt Majka couldn't be more thrilled that NHL realignment should restore old North Stars Norris Division rivalries with Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis.

"Wild fans have been screaming for years for this," Majka said. "The fans are going to be that much more compelled to show up in our building."

But as a fan, too, Majka couldn't be more thrilled.

Take Tuesday night's puck drop in San Jose. That came at 9:30 p.m. Central Time -- a late time that will cause some dreary-eyed Wild fans at work and school Wednesday morning.

It's a start time that will become less regular once realignment begins.

"It's a chore to stay up until midnight," Majka said. "That 2003 playoff run, my kids [Sam and Nick] were just budding Wild fans, 10 and 8 years old. But there's no way they could have stayed up for those great, epic playoff wins we had against Colorado and Vancouver.

"It's one of the great regrets of my life, and theirs, too."

Late Monday night, the NHL Board of Governors surprised much of the hockey world by going the difficult route and approving radical realignment. Pending the ratification from the NHL Players' Association, the NHL will eventually go from six divisions with five teams each to four conferences with seven or eight teams each.

The Wild will leave the Northwest Division with Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton and Vancouver and enter a new conference with Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Nashville, St. Louis and Winnipeg.

The other conferences are:

• Anaheim, Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose and Vancouver;

• Carolina, New Jersey, the New York Islanders and Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington;

• And Boston, Buffalo, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Toronto.

The Wild will play each team in its conference five or six times and each team in the other conferences twice -- one home, one away.

"It's almost like every conference now will be the way the Eastern teams have it now," Wild defenseman Nick Schultz said. "Schedule-wise, the East teams have shorter trips and get back home early. In the West, we have longer trips and get home in the wee hours of the morning.

"It's like last week's up-and-back game to Edmonton. We basically took three days to get one game in."

Wild forward Darroll Powe, who began his career with the Philadelphia Flyers, couldn't agree more: "You're under an hour to most cities in Philly, so you're back home in bed before midnight most games."

Added defenseman Mike Lundin, a former Tampa Bay Lightning: "I've noticed being in the Northwest, it wears on you and you feel pretty beat after a 10-day road trip."

Under the new realignment, the top four teams in each conference make the playoffs. The first two rounds will be strictly interconference. That makes for more fiscally reasonable postseasons (Vancouver faced Chicago and Nashville faced Anaheim in last year's first round), but should also add to the rivalries.

The Wild and Winnipeg Jets should become big rivals.

"Rivalries are created by a few different circumstances -- proximity, repetition and then playoffs," Majka said. "This realignment addresses all those things, so for our fans, we can expect that we'll play those old traditional teams that we're close to and remember from days gone by, and we can expect those rivalries to heat up again quickly."

Majka also is excited that Wild fans will get to see every team annually.

"Sidney Crosby has played in Minnesota exactly twice in his 420-game NHL career. [Alex] Ovechkin has played here three times in 501 games," Majka said.

One thing the Wild better do, as Schultz said, laughing, is learn how to "win in Dallas." The old North Stars have beaten the Wild 14 in a row at home. The Wild is 116-103-38 all-time vs. teams in its new conference, 43-65-18 on the road.

Etc.

• Now that owner Craig Leipold got the realignment he desired, the next task is to land a Winter Classic "as soon as possible," Majka said.

"Almost suddenly we feel better about our chances to attract the Winter Classic just based on our team's performance and what we all believe is on the come with the young prospects in this organization and their potential marketability," Majka said.

• Schultz can't catch a break with his hair. Finally able to get a haircut for the first time in eight months because he gave up on his bet with former teammate Brent Burns, Schultz lost the Wild's shootout competition at the end of Monday's practice. Coach Mike Yeo gave Schultz two choices -- get a Mohawk or buy the team lunch.

Schultz chose the Mohawk.

• Goalie Niklas Backstrom (groin) took lots of shots Tuesday and is close to a return.

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