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The NHL's face-lift is now official.The league announced Thursday that its proposed realignment plan is a go for next season after getting approval from the board of governors. It was the final step in the process after the NHL Players' Association gave its consent to the plan last week. The NHLPA has agreed to this framework through the 2015-16 season with the expectation that both sides will begin reviewing how realignment has fared after the 2014-15 season. The plan, details of which ESPN.com reported on Feb. 26 after obtaining a league memo sent to its 30 teams, will see the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets move to the Eastern Conference from the West, a move that both franchises had been pushing for. The Winnipeg Jets will move into the Western Conference.
Now all 16 NHL clubs in the Eastern time zone are in the same conference, leaving 14 teams in the West. It will also see the NHL move from six divisions to four.
"The new alignment will place several clubs in more geographically appropriate groupings, and will intensify already-fierce rivalries throughout the league," the NHL said.
Some fans of the Chicago Blackhawks won't be happy to lose Original Six rival Detroit from their division given their long history, but Hawks owner Rocky Wirtz told ESPN.com Thursday that he's more than fine with the realignment framework because of the balanced schedule matrix which sees teams play every team in the league at least twice a season. That's an increase in games between out-of-conference teams.
"The way I look at it, we lost Detroit but we gained the other four Original Six teams,'' Wirtz told ESPN.com. "We lost a couple of games with Detroit but to have Montreal, Toronto, Boston and the Rangers in your building every year I think is a great tradeoff. So to me, you lose one and you gain four. I was very much in favor of this. I also do have empathy for Detroit and Columbus and how they had to deal with West Coast times right now.
"I told (commissioner) Gary Bettman all along I was in favor of this. I said that 29 other teams want an Original Six team in their building. So why wouldn't you want them in as many times as you can get them? So I think this is a good thing."
The Dallas Stars have complained for years about being in the Pacific Division with clubs two time zones away. They were pushing to find a new group and got their wish, now in a division next season with Chicago, Colorado, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis and Winnipeg.
Stars president and CEO Jim Lites told ESPN.com that the move has "been a long time coming," saying that when the Stars went to the Pacific in 1998, it "was supposed to be a temporary move.""When you have 30 to 40 percent of your road games started two time zones west of you, it makes it hard for your fans to watch on TV. It just makes it very difficult, and it impacted our TV ratings," he said. "With this change, it brings some rationality in terms of our schedule and our divisional opponents. I mean, people don't realize this, but Winnipeg is closer to Dallas than Phoenix geographically. So our travel schedule has certainly improved overall with this realignment. The Dallas Stars are very happy.''
The Atlanta Thrashers' relocation to Winnipeg two years ago helped precipitate the need for realignment.
"It was our expectation all along that something along these lines would occur. We're really pleased with the way it worked out,'' Winnipeg Jets chairman and governor Mark Chipman told ESPN.com. "From a travel perspective, the Central time zone and great teams in that division, fans around here in Winnipeg are real pleased from what I can gather today. We're pleased there's no question.''The playoffs have also been changed, going to a division-based system. The top three teams in each division qualify for the playoffs with the remaining top two clubs in each conference qualifying as wild cards. So in theory, for example, you could have five teams from one division make the playoffs and only three from another. Not every team will travel less. The Florida Panthers -- along with the Tampa Bay Lightning -- go from the Southeast Division to Division C, which is made up primarily of Northeast teams. "It's for the benefit of all, not just for individual teams, Panthers GM Dale Tallon told ESPN.com's Craig Custance. "Everyone feels this is best for the league and is probably right. We have to travel a lot more. But it's going to be good for our business. We have four Original Six teams coming into our building. That's terrific."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.