Wirtz in favor of four-conference system

CHICAGO -- Count Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz among those who voted for the newly created four conference system the NHL will employ starting next season.

The Hawks' conference will add Winnipeg, Dallas and Minnesota to the four other teams Chicago already sees in divisional play. So Columbus, Detroit, Nashville and St. Louis remain, with the Hawks, to form the new 8-team conference.

“I think it’s good for the Hawks because I like the idea of building rivalries,” Wirtz said Tuesday as Board of Governors’ meetings wrapped up. “The more we build those rivalries up with other teams, we saw with St. Louis, how many fans we had there last game. The fans can start traveling to the away games. It can’t be anything but a plus.”

The biggest change to the new system involves the playoffs. The top four teams in each of the four conferences will make the postseason and then those four teams will face each other in the first two rounds. It means every year the Hawks will face their conference foes 5-6 times and then again in the playoffs, if they qualify.

Wirtz is right, the in-conference rivalries will grow but it probably means diminishing those with other teams. Under the new system, the Hawks will play a home and home series with every out of conference foe. It means facing Vancouver, for example, just twice a year and only in the postseason if both teams advance that far. Isn’t that a negative?

“No, because if we’re fortunate enough to advance through the playoffs we can’t wait to play them later,” Wirtz said.

The build-up would be great, but the payoff may never come. The bottom line is new rivalries are going to emerge but only with the teams in your conference.

It wasn’t lost on Wirtz the Hawks will only have to make one trip to Western cities where travel and late starting times have been an annoyance. He even indicated they would like to eliminate the annual November trip that forces the team out of the United Center to make way for the circus.

"If we can renegotiate the [circus] contract, I've talked to Jerry [Reinsdorf] about it, he'd be willing to do it, too," Wirtz said. "It's just getting the Ringling Bros. folks on board. It's something we were trying to do anyway."

Less travel out West was a good reason to vote for re-alignment but there was more to it for Wirtz.

“That was a plus but I like the idea of bringing in every other team in your building every year,” he said. “We’re guaranteed the other original six teams.”

Maybe the most interesting aspect of re-alignment is the difference in importance of conference games as opposed to the current divisional ones. Despite playing and competing with current central division foes, the Hawks were just as much in competition for a playoff spot with the other western conference teams. Currently, the top 8 in the conference make the playoffs. Under the new system, it’s the top four in each new conference. It’s going to make conference/divisional games that much more important. Games in conference, late in the year, will have plenty more meaning than out of conference affairs. The league should schedule late March and early April accordingly.

“You look at the teams and how close the parity is, it’s not a lay down who the top four teams are going to be,” Wirtz said.

At least every star in the NHL will make a trip to Chicago though diminishing the intensity of facing other opponents isn’t appealing. But there was no perfect solution.

Maybe the Hawks rivalry with the Canucks will come to a climax this season because it has a good chance of fizzling from here on out. So who will be the new most-hated-team? Then again, there’s always the Red Wings.