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Will This Year's Intense NHL Schedule Truly Have an Effect on Emotions and Rivalries?

“After this game this afternoon, the Blue Jays will get on a plane and head off to Boston for a three-game set at Fenway Park.”

“So this game is over and the Orioles will come into New York for a four-game series with the Yankees starting tomorrow night.”

“The Braves take two of three here at Oracle Park in San Francisco and have tomorrow off. They’ll head to L.A. tomorrow and start a three-game series at Chavez Ravine against the Dodgers on Tuesday. Then they’ll head down to San Diego and play the Padres for three starting on Friday night.”

Ah yes, the sounds of summer. Sounds that we are used to and expect. When it comes to baseball, anyway. But as far as hockey is concerned...not really. And now that the 2021 NHL season has begun in earnest, and we can actually look at schedules for different teams in the Canadian Division, we are seeing a schedule that more resembles a baseball team’s schedule than a traditional hockey team’s slate of games.

Leafs defenceman Travis Dermott mixes it up with Artem Anisimov Friday night in Ottawa, in the Senators' season opener with Toronto.

Take the Ottawa Senators for example. This week, the Sens play a three-game home-and-home series against the Winnipeg Jets. Then they head to Vancouver to play a three-game set against the Canucks. Then, it’s two in Edmonton against the Oilers and then a home-and-home with the Montreal Canadiens. And so on...

This is how it will be this season, in a manner to best get 56 games in the books in 116 days. Keep in mind that the NHL is a gate-driven league and there is no gate (or very little gate) coming in in much of the entire circuit. Therefore, it’s incumbent on the league and its teams to run things as efficiently and as inexpensively as possible. And this is how they will do it. Playing two, three and the odd four game series between teams.

I don’t have to tell you that this is something we have never seen before. It will be curious to see how this affects the actual play of the games. How this affects the players in the games, as well. Especially in a time when teams are playing eight, nine or in some cases, ten games against teams in their respective divisions.

The league has not seen teams play other teams this many times in years. Decades, even. The last time that teams played other teams this many times was, in fact, the 1966-67 season when teams played each other FOURTEEN times in the year. That was when the league had just six teams and each team played a seventy-game season.

I was curious how having teams face other teams in their divisions this many times might affect the teams, the players, the rivalries, their emotions. I tried to remember back to that 1966-67 season and understand how teams and players acted and reacted in playing the other teams this many times. That didn’t go so well.

In 1966, I was six years old. I was in Grade 2 at St. Michael’s School in the East end of Ottawa. (It’s not there anymore.) Our class was situated in a portable classroom building in the schoolyard and outside the main school building. My memory of that NHL season is extremely limited. I knew who Bobby Hull and Pierre Pilote were for Chicago. I knew who Jean Beliveau was. Dave Keon, George Armstrong, Johnny Bower were all household names at that time. Gordie Howe was still a force even though, as I looked up later, his Red Wings didn’t make the playoffs that year. The Bruins didn’t make the playoffs either, even though they had an amazing rookie named Bobby Orr.

So I had to reach out to someone who had a much better memory than I have. Someone who is in almost constant contact with the veteran players of that era and can relate all their stories like they happened yesterday. I got a hold of an old friend, Liam Maguire, to refresh my failed memories. And, as usual, Liam did not disappoint.

I was curious as to how the intense schedule would affect the individual players and the team rivalries back then.

“When it comes to the Original Six era, that schedule lent itself to mayhem”, Liam told me.

“I was on a thread the other day talking about Frank Mahovlich and Stan Mikita. They hated each other. After three seasons (42 games against each other), (they had) multiple altercations. It came to a head in Game 4 of the 1962 (Stanley Cup) Final when they fought. Again, benches emptied, they grabbed their sticks and went nuts on each other. Two of the most respected (and) excellent players in the history of the game were so sick of each other, it escalated to that!”

I was blown away. First, that Liam recounted that story so easily and second, that these two greats of the game could be so triggered by each other that they would go to these lengths to get at each other. But he went on.

“Fifteen years ago, Kent Douglas told me he still hated John Ferguson. He said he got so sick of seeing him, he hated him so much (that) he wanted to kill him. They fought eleven times. It’s highly unlikely, even in the rough and tumble Original Six Era, that this kind of hate would have festered and boiled over playing just two to four times a year.” Liam cited recent events to suggest that this is a far different time, at least so far in the young season.

“Fast forward to this past weekend, the ‘Battle Of Ontario’. Sens get a surprise win. There’s bad blood at the end of the game. Simmonds and Watson. Simmonds and Tkachuk. Next night, nothing. We’ll see how it is when they get up to games five, six and seven. And with some of the “three games in a row” contests. But yes, Howie. To me, that schedule during the Original Six Era definitely helped create a violent atmosphere.”

Well, well, well. That would tell me that, depending on your preferences, you may be glued to your TV sets in the coming weeks and months. Or you may be turning them off. Just so you know, I will be watching with my popcorn and my root beer.

Cheers, folks. Have fun and stay safe!

By Howie Mooney | Sens Nation Hockey


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