Mike Johnson had just entered his third season with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the fall of 1998 when his team became the beneficiary of a massive transformation.
After finishing last in the Central Division in back-to-back seasons, the Maple Leafs added Pat Quinn, an eventual Hall of Famer, as coach. They also signed the free-agent goaltender Curtis Joseph. To top it all off, they moved from the Western Conference to the Eastern Conference.
Before the move, the Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings were the only two teams in the Western Conference based in the Eastern time zone. With the league expanding by four teams from 1998 to 2000, Ken Dryden, the Maple Leafs’ president at the time, saw an opportunity for realignment. The move resulted in fewer trips west and quicker recovery times.
It also meant getting home at a decent hour after road games.
“When you’re in the West, you get home, two, three, four in the morning,” Johnson said. “In the East, you’d play Montreal and you’d leave after the game, you would be home in your apartment by 12:30 a.m. And if you had a day off the next day, it was an actual full day off. You definitely felt the difference over time.”
For the 2021 N.H.L. season, Toronto will still be in the same division as Montreal. But adjustments caused by the coronavirus pandemic will create a travel situation resembling the past. With nonessential travel restricted between the United States and Canada, the league temporarily realigned its divisions to ensure its Canadian teams could play in their own buildings when the 56-game regular season starts on Wednesday.
Thus, the new North Division was born. All seven Canadian clubs, from the Vancouver Canucks to the Montreal Canadiens more than 2,800 miles away, will play games solely against one another. The other three divisions — West, Central and East — consist of eight teams each and will also be limited to games among themselves.
The North Division’s matchups will include cross-country battles like Ottawa and Edmonton, and Toronto and Calgary. Despite the evident travel disadvantage teams in Canada will endure, the sentiment behind the concept among those set to take part has been positive.
“It’s going to be way over the top because the Canadian media, all the websites, all the talk, will be about the Canadian teams,” Winnipeg Jets Coach Paul Maurice told reporters on a video call last month. “It’s going to be a little bit old-school, that it’s just going to be about us. There will be a vibe to that that’s awesome.”
Teams in the North Division will play each other nine to 10 times this season. To account for the distance and to limit travel, teams will enter cities and play a series of two or three games.
The baseball-style scheduling could add intensity to the games. Johnson recalled his final three seasons, when the N.H.L. experimented with having teams play eight games against divisional opponents.
“It’ll carry over because you won’t have time to have forgotten or relaxed if, say, your opponent ran your goalie over,” Johnson said. “I just think that kind of emotion will carry over one game to the next, which is not a bad thing.”
While temporary, this realignment forms the latest chapter in a league with a history of geographical imbalances.
Since the N.H.L. expanded from its original six teams in 1967, business interests were heavily prioritized over geography. When the Canucks entered the league in 1970, they played in the East Division along with the Rangers, the Boston Bruins and their expansion cousins, the Buffalo Sabres. The Chicago Blackhawks subsequently moved to the West Division. The Canucks had consistent losing seasons until they moved to a division closer to their western counterparts for the 1974-75 season.
Geographical names were then replaced with the surnames of prominent hockey figures. That was the only way to justify why the Canadiens and the Los Angeles Kings, teams that are separated by more than 2,850 miles, were together in the Norris Division from 1974 to 1981.
The N.H.L. isn’t the only league with geographical misplacements. From 1969 to 1993, the Atlanta Braves played in the National League West. The Dallas Cowboys play in the N.F.C. East with three teams from the Northeast United States.
Sometimes substantial travel is just the price to pay to play the game.
The Toronto Wolfpack, a professional team in the British rugby league system, began play in 2017 in League 1, the lowest tier, and began a course where every road trip was a trans-Atlantic affair.
“I think we’ve probably paid a premium to get a couple of high-level rugby league players to come and play for us and to get top British players to play for us,” said Bob Hunter, who served as the chairman and chief executive of the club in 2019.
In addition to recruiting costs, the team invested in training facilities in Britain for players to use during extended stays in Europe. The investment appeared to pay off. Interest in the sport was growing, and the team was promoted to the system’s top tier, the Super League, for the start of 2020.
But as in all sports, the pandemic took hold, and the club withdrew participation in 2020. Its bid to re-enter the Super League for 2021 was denied.
The new North Division was built out of necessity, and as in other professional sports leagues, teams will have to be flexible if an outbreak hits a particular team.
An additional, one-time provision will allow every N.H.L. club to carry a taxi squad of four to six players (with at least one goaltender), with players permitted to participate in practices and travel with the club without being on the active roster.
Three of the seven Canadian clubs — the Canucks, the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers — have their American Hockey League affiliates in the United States, making the taxi squad of greater importance to them because their players would be subject to stricter quarantine rules when called up.
“We are doing everything we can to keep our players safe because it’s going to affect the team,” Canucks General Manager Jim Benning said.
Once the league reaches the final four teams in the playoffs, the winning team from the East Division, made up of teams in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., will have logged fewer miles than their counterparts.
That is when the North Division may feel the fatigue most.
“It’s a really interesting year, and now you’re playing teams with more time zones than any other group,” Maple Leafs winger Zach Hyman said. “It’s an anomaly, and this season is going to feel like a sprint. But it should set up for some great rivalries.”