Forget a blog entry: I’ve got an entire book in me about the Battle of Ontario. Last night’s game–which I didn’t watch, but which sounded like another routine Senator pasting of the Maple Leafs–was the team’s seventh meeting this season. Unfortunately, instead of invigorating the rivalry between the two franchises, the frequency with which the teams meet is actually diminishing its intensity.
Gary Bettman has made many, many mistakes as commissioner of the National Hockey League, many of which culminated in the lockout which wiped out the 2004/05 season. Last year, in an effort to “create rivalries”, he championed the infamous “unbalanced schedule” in which divisional opponents would play each other eight times each year. For Leaf fans, the results were immediately tangible: in 2005/06, the Leafs (or the Montreal Canadiens, for that matter) didn’t play either the Detroit Red Wings or the Chicago Blackhawks. It was the first time since the 1920s that these Original Six teams didn’t face each other during the regular season. On the other hand, Toronto played a combined thirty-two games against Ottawa, Montreal, Buffalo and Boston. If divisional play is what you wanted, then divisional play is what you got–all the frigging time.
But is that a good thing? Initially, the frequency with which the Leafs and the Sens were playing was oddly refreshing–but as the teams played again and again and again, the rivalry began losing its lustre. In retrospect, maybe everyone’s initial excitement was simply a byproduct of being so starved for any kind of NHL hockey that we were happy with whatever we were getting. As the season wore on, however, the Battle of Ontario stopped being an event, and started becoming a routine. Leaf fans were sick of the Ottawa Senators, and not just because the Leafs were getting hammered by Ottawa practically every time they played. Rather, we were simply bored of watching the same opponents all the time. It wasn’t just the Senators: it was the rest of the Northeast Division as well. I’d imagine Sens fans felt the same way, although I’m sure they enjoyed the two free points every time the teams met. And so it went for the entire season, which ended with Ottawa winning seven of eight games against Toronto.
This year, the teams opened the season with a home-and-home series; Ottawa won 4-1 in Toronto, while the Leafs shut out the Senators 6-0 at Scotiabank Place. By the second game, I was already sick of the Battle of Ontario–and, moreover, by the NHL’s shameless attempt at “creating” rivalries. Because here’s the thing: you can’t “create” a rivalry. If you don’t have geography working in your favour, then you need to let rivalries percolate over time. Take Ottawa/Buffalo, for instance. It’s arguably the most intense rivalry in the NHL these days…and it’s got absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the teams share a division and, therefore, play eight times a year. In case you missed it, a few weeks ago the teams were involved in an epic Battle Royale at HSBC Arena in Buffalo; two nights later, they played an absolutely classic game in Kanata which Ottawa eventually won 6-5 on a last-minute goal by Jason Spezza (I think…Kev?). Throw in last year’s playoff series between the two teams and the fact that they’re both arguably the cream of the Eastern Conference yet again, and you’ve got all the ingredients you need. Again, you can’t force these things: you just have to let them happen.
Gary Bettman and his cronies would be well-advised to study European football for irrefutible evidence that this “less is more” approach is bang-on. Take Manchester United/Liverpool, for instance. Generally speaking, the teams meet twice each calendar year; throw in cup competitions, and the most they could feasibly meet in one season is seven times, which would be highly unlikely at best. Does this hurt the rivalry? No: it fuels it. Because by building anticipation between games, a sense of occasion develops, which builds to a fever pitch before ultimately exploding at kick-off time. Again, you can’t force this. One suspects that if Gary Bettman were running the Premiership, United would be meeting Liverpool every other week.
Which brings me back to last night’s game. I understand that the North American sports set-up would make two annual meetings between provincial rivals impossible, particularly given the NHL’s ludicrous 82-game schedule. But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that Toronto and Ottawa played four times a year instead of eight. By paring down the number of games, you’d instantly regain that sense of anticipation every time the two teams met. That’s not really present anymore, at least from where I’m sitting. The Leafs/Senators rivalry was wrought out of geographic proximity and the team’s four playoff meetings between 2000 and 2004 (all of which, lest we forget, the Leafs won). Yet as much as I’ve enjoyed watching the Battle of Ontario since its reinception, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to actually care about it. Gary Bettman is constantly marginalizing his league’s hard core fans in a desperate attempt to court an indifferent (primarily U.S.) audience. The more he does this, the less the NHL is going to matter to those who really care about it.
Which would be ironic. And which is starting to feel inevitable.