There’s nothing like a good rivalry. Two talented teams that don’t like each other and two fan bases that despise each other make for exciting games and great atmospheres. It also makes for great storylines for sports writers.
Unfortunately, the NHL is suffering from an extreme lack of rivalries right now. There hasn’t been a decent rivalry since the Red Wings and the Avalanche duked it out in the playoffs over and over again in the late 1990s.
Sure, Bruins and Canadiens fans like to say they have an intense rivalry. Penguins and Capitals fans claim their rivalry is growing. But let’s be honest. Nobody cares about the Boston-Montreal rivalry outside of New England and Quebec, and even though HBO did a great job profiling Pittsburgh and Washington last year in its 24/7 feature, the rivalry wasn’t all that exciting.
This isn’t just a hockey problem either.
There isn’t a good rivalry in any of the major American professional sports. Baseball used to have the Yankees and Red Sox but – even though ESPN and Fox try to convince us otherwise – that rivalry has dwindled ever since Boston won two World Series titles in the last decade. They’ve attempted to fix that with geographical rivalry series between the American and National Leagues such as Cubs-White Sox, Yankees-Mets, Angels-Dodgers, and Brewers-Twins. This might increase attendance, but none of the matchups are anything special because the teams in it aren’t consistently good.
Football is also lacking in the rivalry department. There are small rivalries within divisions (Giants-Eagles, Packers-Vikings, Ravens-Steelers) but nothing huge. The most recent huge rivalry was Patriots-Colts which got so big that the two teams scheduled each other every year and football fans picked sides. You either liked Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. You were either a Tony Dungy fan or a Bill Belichick fan. Now, however, both teams are on the decline. In the last three years, the Pats and Colts made one last run before losing in the Super Bowl. The NFL needs another rivalry like that.
The NBA is the worst. I was four years old at the peak of its last good rivalry — the Lakers and Celtics of the 1980s. There have been small tiffs over the years, almost all of them involving the Knicks for some reason, but nothing that made fans pick sides.
Does anything come close to a big rivalry in the NHL? Not right now, but I hope that will change. It can only make the game more popular.
Until then turn to college hockey, where rivalries range from mildly heated to flat-out hatred. Some are enough to get you excited, but not enough to make you have to watch your back as you leave the opponent’s arena: Cornell-Boston University, Michigan-Ohio State, and Harvard-Yale. Whenever the two teams get together, it’s a spirited affair; once the series is over everybody cools down.
Looking for a more heated rivalry that involves trash talking, traveling trophies, and people holding grudges until next season? Take a look at Alaska Anchorage-Alaska Fairbanks, Michigan Tech-Northern Michigan, Clarkson-St. Lawrence, Michigan-Michigan State, and Minnesota-Wisconsin.
If you are like me and want a rivalry that involves lots of fighting, both physical and verbal, check out Maine-New Hampshire, which is similar to what the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry used to be. Maine has two national titles, one at the hands of New Hampshire, while UNH has zero. Maine made six Frozen Four appearances in nine years; UNH has made two. The taunts are always flying and the games are always sellouts.
Another great one is Denver-Colorado College. The Pioneers and Tigers battle for the Gold Pan trophy every year. Past games have involved actual trash being thrown at players and live mice being released onto the ice.
Cornell and Harvard have an intense rivalry that typically involves a fight for the ECAC hockey title. Ivy League taunts are always fun to listen to and livestock have also been known to end up on the ice.
Boston University-Boston College is a great battle. Both teams have won numerous national titles and are almost always in the NCAA tournament. Both teams’ coaches, Jack Parker and Jerry York, are also hockey legends. They face off against each other frequently during the regular season, in the Beanpot tournament and the Hockey East tournament, which makes for an awesome rivalry.
Two more rivalries to consider, both involving North Dakota. The first is with Denver, a rivalry that’s finally gotten going again after a long time. The Fighting Sioux and Pioneers have met in the NCAA title game and the WCHA tournament numerous times. Their fans don’t like each other and neither do the teams. Some legendary brawls have erupted between the two sides and the intensity doesn’t seem to be dropping.
The other is with Minnesota – and here’s where it gets nasty. Wisconsin likes to claim it is the Gophers’ biggest rival, but Gophers fans and players hate the Sioux; they merely dislike the Badgers. There’s always at least one huge fight in every matchup and sometimes fights break out in the stands. Sioux fans love to throw frozen gophers onto the ice and taunt Minnesota fans that they have seven national titles to the Gophers’ five. Gophers fans retaliate with boos – and cheers for any team playing UND at the WCHA Final Five, which is played in St. Paul. The rivalry has been heated for years and will continue for years to come.
Speaking of forced NHL rivalries, the Winter Classic is quickly approaching. The Flyers and Rangers will invade Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia this year. It should be an entertaining game and HBO will do a great job building enthusiasm with another 24/7 session starting December 14.
Where should the game go next? I would like to see the game move away from the eastern seaboard for the next game or two, if only to show casual fans that there are other teams in the league.
Minnesota has a sparkling new baseball stadium in Target Field as well as a nice college football stadium down the road. Locals love their hockey and would snatch up tickets very quickly. Detroit has a storied hockey tradition, a fervent fan base, and also has a nice baseball stadium in Comerica Park. A third possibility is Denver, which has a baseball and a football stadium, a great backdrop for tourists, and fans who know the game. All three locations are prone to snow, which could help re-create the memorable scene of snowflakes falling during a shootout in Buffalo.
Some Canadian cities should also be considered, though the NHL seems content to draw national lines with the Heritage Classic. Hopefully with the Jets returning to town, Winnipeg will be the next choice for that event.
After the Winter Classic expands its territory a little bit, it can return to the East Coast. Yankee Stadium, Camden Yards, the Meadowlands, FedEx Field, and Citi Field are all good options. Or why not a neutral location that loves hockey but doesn’t have an NHL team, like Cleveland or Green Bay?
One thing is for certain: the Winter Classic is quickly becoming a New Year’s institution just like college football. No matter where it’s played, it will be a great showcase for hockey.