Hockey Night in suburban Chicago

Once again, the NHL is thinking about tinkering.

Earlier this season, the league said they would unveil a new uniform template involving a more high-tech design to "blend fashion with functionality" ... and essentially eliminating the old-style hockey sweater. That way, players like Chicago goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin -- who only looks like he's pushing three bills here -- can look slim and trim as he stops vulcanized rubber coming at him at 100 mph.

Is that kind of change a good thing? Probably not. Hockey players and fans, by and large, are skeptical of anything new. I didn't like the thought of advertisements on the boards and overtime when they were first used, but in time, things like that became part of the game.

I did like the idea of the shootout when it was instituted, but for the most part, tradition need not stick around. Now, the league is floating the idea of reducing the number of divisions from six to four. Fans be warned: if this happens, don't expect the return of the Patrick, Adams, Norris and Smythe Divisions.

That wouldn't work in Gary Bettman's world.

Under the proposed plan, which may not even be voted on at next month's NHL board of governor's meeting, divisions of eight and seven teams would make up the Eastern and Western Conferences.

The West's eight-team conference would be made up of Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose, Colorado and Phoenix. The seven-team group would be Chicago, Minnesota, Detroit, St. Louis, Nashville, Dallas and Atlanta.

In the East, the eight teams would be the New York Rangers and Islanders, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington, Carolina, Tampa Bay and Florida. Though it's not known if the Penguins will be staying in Pittsburgh beyond this season, they would join Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Boston, Buffalo and Columbus in the seven-team group.

The playoff seedings would come from the top two teams in each division, and four wild cards would come from teams with the next four highest point totals.

Now this is just a concept, but here is something I hope this possible new alignment addresses. When I was growing up and the new schedules came out in the summer, I always looked to see when teams like Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Chicago and St. Louis would come to Madison Square Garden, and also when the Rangers were headed out to play teams in the West.

These days, there are too many games against divisional foes. I don't particularly mind that the Rangers have eight chances in a season to wallop the snot out of the Islanders -- I'm a fan, I got to have something to cheer, you know -- but I don't need eight matchups a year against the Devils, Flyers and Penguins.

The way schedules are set up now is ridiculous. Earlier this season, I wrote previews when Montreal and Toronto visited the United Center to meet the Blackhawks. Consider that these are three of the Original Six teams, but the Canadiens were making their first appearance in the Windy City in 4 1/2 years; it was nearly four years for the Maple Leafs to come back to Chicago.

This season, none of the Atlantic Divison teams are scheduled to come to Chicago or play at any Central Division club. So, if I wanted to see my favorite team play live, I would either need to drive to Pittsburgh or fly to Dallas. There is no logical reason for this, nor is there one to explain by Original Six teams from opposing conferences cannot meet at least twice each season.

Also, if Bettman wants to make the league viable, wouldn't it make sense to ensure that young stars like Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin play in each arena at least once each season? Sadly, that seems to make too much sense.

I don't think Bettman ever quite grasped how much tradition is rooted by fans in the league. He keeps wanting to expand the league's presence by trying to bring in new fans -- which is a good thing -- but he seems stubbornly to insist on doing so at the expense of the older fans and their ways.


ON FULL BOYLE: Tampa Bay defenseman Dan Boyle had a hat trick and assist in four-goal third period to rally the Lightning to a 4-3 win over the Rangers, who've dropped five in a row.

AND WORKING OVERTIME: Minnesota won its league-best 11th overtime game this season when diminutive Pierre-Marc Bouchard scored 45 seconds into the extra session for a 3-2 win over Detroit.

THANKS FOR THE HELP: Nashville's Alexander Radulov had 10 goals, but just three assists coming into Saturday's game against Los Angeles. The rookie doubled his assist total by drawing three helpers as the Predators routed the Kings 7-0.


TOUGH BREAK: Maple Leafs center Michael Peca likely will miss the remainder of the regular season with a broken leg suffered in a 3-1 loss to the Blackhawks on Friday. "He's not a guy you immediately replace," said Toronto general manager John Ferguson, who declined to say if Peca has played his last game for the team.

FLYERS FOLLIES CONTINUE: The Flyers' franchise-record losing streak reached nine games after a 6-3 loss to Ottawa. Philadelphia starts a season-high eight-game road trip on Wednesday at Florida.

ALL QUACKED UP: Anaheim's Jean-Sebastien Giguere gives up goals 13 seconds apart in the third period of a 2-0 loss to Phoenix. The defeat ended the Ducks' eight-game winning streak over the Coyotes and was just their third in regulation since Nov. 17.


"The big thing, Rory, if you're watching, they're not laughing with you, they're laughing at you." -- Hockey Night in Canada personality Don Cherry speaking out on fan voting for the All-Star game after an Internet campaign to vote Vancouver fringe defenseman Rory Fitzpatrick has resulted in him ahead of All-Star veterans Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Pronger and Sergei Zubov.

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