The big weekend is here again. Americans take their minds off
the minor mysteries of life, such as why Michael and Lisa Marie
didn't just talk the whole thing out on Oprah, and instead turn
to the Great Imponderable of Sports: Why is one conference so
Then at halftime of the Super Bowl, when viewers have seen all
the new commercials and polished off that second bowl of chili
and there is nothing to think about for the next 90 minutes
except Deion's dance steps, some Americans--at least the ones who
can follow a puck without the aid of Fox's blue-dot
special--might turn to the Other Imponderable: Why is one NHL
conference, the Eastern, so dominant?
"This is not an NFC-AFC thing," Philadelphia Flyers left wing
John LeClair says. "The gap's not that wide."
Maybe not. The disparity between NFL conferences has become
epochal in duration while the balance of NHL power probably
still is cyclical (though five straight Stanley Cups and 22 in
the last 28 years for the East make it the longest cycle since
Richard Wagner's). In a midseason snapshot the East-West chasm
looks as yawning as the crowd at Boston's new FleetCenter for
the All-Star Game, which didn't turn vibrant until Bruins
captain Ray Bourque scored with 37.3 seconds remaining last
Saturday to give the East a 5-4 victory.
The 13-team Eastern Conference, known as the Prince of Wales
until 1993 when commissioner Gary Bettman decided Americans know
even less about royalty than they do about geography, is strong
from the top down to way past the middle while the Western
Conference has three good teams and lots of filler. The West
took six of seven Cups from 1984 to 1990; however, all but one
of those were won by the dynastic Edmonton Oilers. In the past
five years four different Eastern clubs--the Pittsburgh Penguins
(1991 and '92), the Montreal Canadiens (1993), the New York
Rangers (1994) and the New Jersey Devils (1995)--have won the
championship. At the All-Star break this season the Detroit Red
Wings (32-9-3) had the league's best overall record, but the
rest of the top five--the Rangers, the Florida Panthers, the
Penguins and the Flyers--were from the East. And while Detroit
had a winning record against the East (9-6-0), it was a gaudy
23-3-3 against the West. The only other Western Conference teams
with winning records against the East were the transplanted
Colorado Avalanche (7-6-4), who played in the Eastern Conference
last season as the Quebec Nordiques, the Chicago Blackhawks
(10-6-2) and the lowly Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (8-7-3). Overall
the East, which had twice as many .500-plus teams (eight) as the
West, was 102-85-25 head-to-head.
The Western Conference doesn't simply have fewer Cup contenders
than the East. It also has all the really bad teams in the
league, with the notable exception of the egregiously awful
Ottawa Senators. Hockey's horrible include the disappointing San
Jose Sharks, the dishwater-dull Dallas Stars and the Oilers, who
have tried and so far failed to copy the success of the early
1980s when the young Oilers developed into one of the alltime
great teams. The West--the far west, anyway--is a wasteland.
Here are four reasons why the East is the beast.
1) The Eastern Conference teams are bigger and tougher, and
therefore better suited to the NHL's two-month playoff marathon.
The Red Wings cut a Visigothic swath through their 48
intraconference games in the lockout-shortened 1995 season, but
their shortcomings were exposed in the Cup finals by the larger,
grittier and equally quick Devils. If you blinked, you missed
New Jersey's four-game sweep.
Detroit is every bit as talented this season but no tougher. Its
top nine forwards give away on average more than two inches and
20 pounds to Philadelphia's, almost three inches and 19 pounds
to Pittsburgh's and six pounds to the Rangers'. The thought of
meeting the bruising Flyers every other night in June for the
Cup, after getting through three preliminary playoff series,
must be disquieting for Detroit. "Our team still could get
tougher on the wings," Detroit center Sergei Fedorov says, "and
we could use another tough defenseman."
"There are some great teams in the West, but in the East you see
more big wingers, closer checking, no free ice, the way it is
during the playoffs," says Brendan Shanahan, the Hartford
Whalers' left wing who spent four seasons in the Western
Conference with the St. Louis Blues. "Most Eastern teams don't
have to adjust much to playoff style because they always try to
play that way."
The distinctive styles exist, in part, because the Western
Conference still suffers from an Edmonton hangover. The species
has largely stopped evolving; the other teams in the West are
still trying to match the Oilers' standards of speed and skill
even though the Edmonton dynasty is dead.
"You build a team to win its conference, to beat the teams it
plays all the time," says Harry Neale, the former NHL coach who
is now a television analyst. "Most of the Western teams still
have the mentality that they have to get quicker and score more.
They're still not over Edmonton."
"That," says Vancouver Canucks general manager Pat Quinn, "is
what happens when you have Wayne Gretzky in your conference."
"You're only as good as your competition, and here you gear up
to be the best team in the East," says Flyers center Craig
MacTavish, who won three Stanley Cups in Edmonton ('87, '88 and
'90) and another with the Rangers. "You saw the result clearly
last year when there was no interconference play. Detroit
suffered. Eastern teams build around big, aggressive forwards.
The Eastern philosophy is more successful right now--that's
2) The Eastern Conference has better talent. Or, as Calgary
Flames right wing Theoren Fleury puts it, "The reason the East's
stronger? Mark Messier moved out of the West."
The truth is, though, the talent in the Eastern Conference runs
deep. With all due respect to Gretzky, Joe Sakic, Chris Chelios,
Alexander Mogilny and Brett Hull, the five players who had the
most profound effect on hockey during the first half of this
season were all from the East. Messier scored 31 goals and made
all the hits while carrying the Rangers; Pittsburgh's Mario
Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr were playing hide-and-seek with the
scoring title; Eric Lindros of the Flyers has become the
21st-century prototype, the mean, physical scoring center that
every general manager wants to build a team around; and goalie
John Vanbiesbrouck continues to be the foundation of the
remarkable Panthers. The team with the best player--Gretzky in
the 1980s, Lemieux in 1991-92, Messier in 1994--wins the Stanley
Cup more often than not.
In the kaleidoscopic world of goaltending, where even legends
fade in and out, the Eastern Conference boasts a still more
striking advantage--and not simply because its goalies see fewer
two-on-ones. Besides Vanbiesbrouck, the East has the Buffalo
Sabres' Dominik Hasek (winner of the Vezina Trophy as the
league's top goalie the past two years), Mike Richter of the
Rangers and Martin Brodeur of the Devils. That's a more
impressive group than Detroit's Chris Osgood, the Toronto Maple
Leafs' Felix Potvin and the revitalized Grant Fuhr, who has
started every game this season for St. Louis. The trade of
Patrick Roy to the West (Montreal to Colorado) and Bill Ranford
to the East (Edmonton to Boston) is a stand-off.
3) Travel puts the Western Conference at a big disadvantage.
The wide-open spaces in the West are not confined to center ice.
While the Rangers, the Devils, the Flyers and the New York
Islanders collect frequent Greyhound miles, Western Conference
teams flit among four time zones for intraconference matches.
The problems are less severe for a Central Division dweller such
as the Blackhawks or teams that own planes such as the
Avalanche, but the Flames will charter a flight just nine times
this season, which translates into a lot of airport downtime.
"Travel is a far bigger factor than I thought it would be,"
Colorado coach Marc Crawford says. "The effects can strike you
at any time. At the start of a road trip, at the end of a road
trip, even at home--because guys start thinking about another
long road trip that starts next week. You lose practice days to
travel, but it also affects how you practice. You lose quality
in your practices because of fatigue."
4) Money has tilted the balance of power.
Although only three of the top 10 payrolls in 1996 are from
teams in the Eastern Conference, financial difficulties have
sapped the strength of some good Western Conference teams. In
Edmonton small-market economics forced the Oilers to scatter
Gretzky, Messier, Fuhr, Kevin Lowe, Glenn Anderson, Marty
McSorley and MacTavish throughout the league. Calgary, the 1989
Cup winner, still has stars like Fleury and Gary Roberts
remaining from its good teams, but the cost of maintaining a
winner was overwhelming. Checking center Joel Otto, 40-goal
scorer Robert Reichel and dependable goaltender Mike Vernon are
among those pricey players who are no longer with the team.
Maybe one or two mid-level trades that bulk up the Red Wings or
the maturation of the youthful Avalanche will help reverse the
Eastern dominance come Stanley Cup time. But right now the smart
bet is to take the East against the spread. If hockey's balance
of power is cyclical, the West is pedaling up a steep hill.