Though there surely should have been, we had no mayoral proclamation, no triumphant, inspiring oratory from any of our region’s elected officials, Chambers of Commerce, or business luminaries, no acknowledgment of the Great Liberation that uniquely visited Washington this week.
Teased previously by a league-led but ultimately union-quashed plan to reconfigure NHL member clubs and their divisions, this week the union gave its blessing to a scheme that, beginning next season, helps the Capitals as much as any other club. All that remains is for the league’s Board of Governors to consent, which will be pro forma.
Realignment would become official for our very next hockey season. It will represent the first such structural overhaul since 1998-99, when the Capitals were divorced from their longstanding, natural rivals about the Mid-Atlantic and sentenced to a prison-camp consignment in the least interesting, least respected division in the history of major professional sports. Virtually since its inception this Frankenstein configuration was derisively labeled the SouthLeast. Necessarily, this was Gary Bettman’s idea. I’m a deeply spiritual individual, and not ungenerous with instincts for forgiveness, but I do not believe that Betmman should ever be admitted to Heaven having committed this crime.
Quite simply, the Capitals for the better part of 15 years have been banished from interesting hockey. In a spectacularly ill-considered and ill-fated expansionist ethos that culminated in the late ’90s, the disrespected Caps were reassigned by Bettman into an association of irrelevancy. None of the Rangers, Flyers, Penguins, Islanders, or Devils ever would have been asked to do what the Caps were by Bettman.
Professional hockey is best experienced when hatred is congenital between the waring factions, and this is precisely what the Grand Old Patrick Division nightly bred. There were nights during my ’70s youth out at Capital Centre when my father literally had to physically safeguard me at night’s end against the inebriated invective and bullying of the bused-in fanbases from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. It was glorious — at least when our guys won. Tell me: Ever recall being taunted by a Thrashers fan about the Verizon Center concourse? Ever encounter a Thrashers fan on our concourse? Ever see a section of our home rink fairly filled by Tampa fans? Ever met a Tampa fan?
Television’s reaction to the SouthLeast was perhaps the principal indictment of Bettman’s destruction — NBC would rather have broadcast church bingo or backgammon than any game between the Panthers and Thrashers — but it was anything but sidebar that the Capitals were not only able to maintain their remarkable rivalry with Pittsburgh the past 15 years but actually enhance it into the best in the sport. One of the best in all of sports, truth be told. The atmosphere inside Verizon Center for a Pens’ visit — pre-Crosby and Ovechkin — was electric, an all too infrequent salve for the soporific slate of the SouthLeast.
On numerous occasions during this abbreviated season I’ve heard and read attacks on our division for its being incomparably weak. And this differs from previous seasons how? It seems perfect in a poetic sense (of bad poetry) that in its final incarnation the demolition of the division will bid adieu to four charter members as well as one located in . . . Winnipeg.
The definition of crickets chirping was witnessing a September exhibition visit here by a SouthLeast member. Mid-winter matchups often were marginally better attended. Says everything really that in the tiered pricing plan put in place by the Caps in recent seasons the best values were accorded to our division “rivals.”
Mercifully we’ve but weeks more enduring the inanity.
One simple question I think best summarizes the richly earned derision and disdain accorded our division: What will you miss most about the dissolved SouthLeast? I answer: Less than nothing.
Beginning next season, hockey in Washington will experience a renaissance — no matter the strength of the Capitals roster. In the reconfiguration the Capitals will be reunited with all of their Patrick foes, one interloper (Carolina), and one red-headed stepchild (Columbus). It’s not perfect to be sure, but it’s an order of magnitude improvement for the nightly environment of our rink. I also have hope that the Jackets are on life support and likely sooner rather than later to uproot themselves, just as the Thrashers did, and relocate to a market that gives a damn about the sport. The Caps’ new division obviously would become even more appealing.
So Bettman has belatedly righted a grievous wrong, but as he engineered this realignment too it’s rife with flaws. He has a queer affinity-nostalgia for regional geography. I know nothing about his family, but I suspect if he has children they’re named Over Yonder, North by Northwest, Due East. Once upon a time, the NHL was nobly distinguished from all other professional sports in honoring its builders and heroes by affixing their names to its divisions. This should happen again. Perhaps the Board of Governors will intervene in the matter.
A sticking point for the union with the league’s previous realignment proposal was a return to a pure divisional playoff format, in which the top four clubs from each division met before an eventual winner would compete outside the division. This more than anything bred enduring contempt. It bred rivalries. This time around the top three teams in each of four divisions qualify for the postseason, along with two additional “wild card” clubs from within the conference. The no. 1 overall club would get the no. 8 in the East in round one. A bit of a mish-mash, but let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the vastly improved. We’re in for roaring good times again, at long last.
The SouthLeast in its infamy was even derided as the NHL’s NASCAR division. But not even Danica Patrick couldn’t be bothered watching it.