NHL

Old-School Hockey Fans Love the NHL’s 2021 Format: ‘You’re Going to Get a Lot of Hatred on the Ice’

The NHL’s long history of rivalries stretches back to the first games played. However, as the league expanded and teams got further away, franchises built up many of the remaining rivalries long ago. With the new COVID-19 protocols limiting how much some teams can travel, many see it as an opportunity to revitalize a rivalry. 

A new, strange NHL season

Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets stretches prior to the start of a game
Elvis Merzlikins of the Blue Jackets before a game | Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

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Everything about the new season is strange, details ESPN. It started in January as opposed to the fall when it’s historically begun nearly every year. However, despite some sense of normalcy after bypassing the bubble that helped them end the previous season, there’s still a lot that makes the season strange. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, the travel and competition are far different. 

The NHL did several things to cope with the pandemic. Players will not be allowed to go about the town on the road as they could regularly. Furthermore, they have to be somewhat stingy with the groups they take out on the road. However, the strangest difference is the incorporation of regional brackets as opposed to regular ones. 

With Canada still playing hardball with American travelers, the Canadian teams will form their conference. Similar ones appear across the country on a regional basis. There are three American brackets to go along with Canada’s, and the top four teams in all of them will play in. May’s Stanley Cup playoffs. However, while this might be strange for everyone, it could lead to added intrigue

The return of old-school rivalries

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Hockey has always, at its core, been about rivalries, details Bleacher Report. However, as the teams’ geographical space expanded, so did the chance at a true-blue regional rivalry. While many of the league’s biggest rivalries remain strong today, it doesn’t mean that new ones are thriving. However, with teams trapped in a series of small matchups against regionally-aligned opponents, this could help them find a new one. 

The current format doesn’t spread the games out like a regular season. Whenever a fight is picked or a team wins in the clutch, they’re likely to see that team again shortly. This, according to those in the hockey world, could be what saves the sport during a trying season that’s unlike any in the past. 

Bad blood on the ice 

Vegas Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer sees the new format, even if it’s a temporary solution to a far more significant problem than hockey, as a way to promote playoff-intensity during the regular season. Many of these teams have bad blood, reports NHL.com. Playing in more series as opposed to a spread-out competition means that the bad blood of one game can bleed over into the next. 

According to DeBoer, it’s a natural way to keep the regular season interesting despite all other concerns. 

“There’s a reason the NHL plays their playoffs within the division, it’s to create those rivalries and that hatred, and we don’t get a lot of that during the regular season bumping around from city to city with absolutely no back-to-backs against the same team in the same city,” the coach told NHL.com. 

These factors combine to make the unique draw of the current season a little bit more meaningful.

“I think you combine the shortened season, playing teams multiple times, including back-to-backs and some four times in a row, you’re going to get a lot of hatred on the ice and a lot of familiarity with each other and a lot of battles that spill over from Game 1 to Game 2 to Game 3. And that’s why, for me, playoff hockey in the NHL is the greatest sports event there is to watch, and we’re going to get, I think, a good dose of that during the regular season,” DeBoer said.

The NHL, like all other sports and entertainment venues, had to think on the fly. However, while some leagues have appeared to drop the ball, the NHL has a chance to make this season, which remains a beacon of uncertainty, the most memorable one yet in a sport that’s dying to break into the American sports world past its loyal following.