The NHL’s history is littered with tinkering. Division realignments and schedule imbalances and playoff-format revamps, much of it in the quest to stoke a sporting golden goose: rivalry.
It’s possible it took a pandemic to present what seems like the best brainwave yet. Take the 31-franchise league and separate out Canada’s seven. Give the Maple Leafs and their six compatriots in the NHL’s Canadian division the opportunity to play one another as many as 10 times in a 56-game sprint of a season — plus a chance at another seven meetings in a post-season that will also be all-Canadian in the opening two rounds. Even in the age of social distancing, it follows that on-ice product will come with a kind of extreme familiarity that breeds animosity and builds history.
“It’s going to be a rivalry night every night,” Matthew Tkachuk, the Calgary Flames fire-starter, was saying in the lead-up to the season.
To which Joe Cobbs and David Tyler, a pair of U.S.-based academic researchers who’ve spent time studying the nuances of sporting rivalries, would respectfully suggest a toning down of the hyperbole. Cobbs likes to tell the story of how he once held a sports marketing job at an NCAA university in which he was charged with writing advertising copy for upcoming games. His boss, he says, would insist on inserting the word “rival” in front of every conference opponent, much to Cobbs’s dismay.
“I would get so frustrated and say, ‘You can’t call every team a rival or it loses all its meaning,’” said Cobbs, an associate professor of business at Northern Kentucky University.
Precisely how many teams is it fair to legitimately call a rival? Cobbs and Tyler, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, set out to answer that question and many others when, with the help of a cadre of student assistants at their respective institutions, they surveyed more than 5,000 fans across the major North American sports a few years back in an attempt to measure public perception of rivalry.
“In sports, there wasn’t a lot of systematic research on rivalry,” said Tyler, “which is strange because it’s just a dominant topic.”
Their results — available for viewing on their website, KnowRivalry.com — suggest not everybody perceives rivalry in the same way. Leafs fans surveyed in the study, for instance, identified the Montreal Canadiens as Toronto’s chief rival, which makes sense given the clubs’ historic place as bedrock franchises in the history of the game. But the Montreal respondents didn’t exactly reciprocate the feeling. Fans of the Canadiens apportioned the greatest share of their 100 “rivalry points” — the survey’s mechanism for weighing the significance of each rival — to the Boston Bruins, with Toronto second.
Cobbs and Tyler found such unbalanced relationships between fan bases are far from unusual. Loyalists of the Buffalo Sabres, for instance, ranked Toronto as their No. 1 rival. But Leafs Nation didn’t return the favour, placing Buffalo fourth on its list of all-time foes. Similarly, fans of Toronto’s Saturday night opponent, the Ottawa Senators, ranked the Leafs as their team’s top rival — perhaps on the strength of the glory days of the Battle of Ontario, when the Leafs and Senators met in the playoffs on four occasions in a five-spring span.
As one Ottawa-loving respondent wrote: “I was raised as a child to cheer against (the Leafs). It’s ingrained in our family culture.”
Added another: “Best scenario: Sens win. Second best scenario: Leafs lose. After that, I really don’t care.”
For all that visceral hate emanating from the nation’s capital region, fans of the Leafs ranked Ottawa as Toronto’s No. 2 on-ice enemy behind Les Habitants.
“A lot of teams identify Toronto as a rival, but that’s not reciprocated by Toronto fans,” Tyler said.
If the Leafs are a flashpoint of more than one fan base’s ire, so is Leafs Nation. The KnowRivalry.com survey asked fans about their feelings toward the bases of rival teams. Using a scale from one to seven — one being “strongly disagree,” seven “strongly agree” — respondents were given prompts such as “Maple Leafs fans are more arrogant than the fans of a typical team” and “I feel Maple Leafs fans are intolerant of other fans.” The average fan base rated a 5.2. The Leafs’ rated a 5.7, highest in the league. The other six Canadian bases came in at 5.1 or lower, below the league mean.
Which is not to say things might not change in short order. As Cobbs and Tyler were pointing out in a recent interview, rivalry is ultimately just a narrative that is, with the march of time, potentially adding plot twists with every drop of the puck. If every narrative needs fresh fodder, this season’s compressed, one-division schedule — which hearkens back to the six-team era that saw the Leafs and Canadiens build their eternal back-and-forth by playing as many as 14 times in a single regular season — promises to provide plenty.
“A narrative needs characters, and it needs a setting, and it needs moments,” said Cobbs. “And all of those things are more likely to develop when you have a greater frequency of play.”
Cobbs, for his part, said he’s interested to see how the 10 meetings between the Leafs and Canadiens — the first of which produced a wild 5-4 Leafs overtime win on opening night — might “ratchet up the intensity” between the old foes. “Because Montreal fans won’t get a chance to focus on Boston,” he said.
Though Cobbs works at a university based on the Kentucky end of metropolitan Cincinnati — “It’s not a big hockey area” — he teaches a course on sports rivalry in which students spend time studying the history of the Leafs-Canadiens dyad.
“We talk quite a bit about Toronto-Montreal, just about the cultural difference,” Cobbs said. “Obviously you have French-speaking versus English-speaking, and then there’s also the economic epicentre of Canada in Toronto and the cultural epicentre of Canada in Montreal, and how the two cities sort of vie for supremacy as Canada’s top city. And that reflects itself in the national sport of hockey, but it even trickles down to (Major League Soccer). Toronto-Montreal is the top rivalry in MLS, the way that we measure it. Clearly, it’s beyond the sport itself with those two cities.”
Said Tyler, who also teaches a course that delves into sports rivalries: “It sounds funny at first. ‘Wait, you teach a class on sport rivalry?’ But it’s a great way to show that sports is not always about what happens on the field, that it’s about all these other factors, and how sports serve as a marker of identity for people. I had students going in-depth on the social and historical differences of Osaka and Tokyo just because they were studying that baseball rivalry between those cities. And these are students who didn’t know Osaka was a city before the class started.”
It’s worth noting that both of the classes that Cobbs and Tyler teach are situated in the faculty of business of their respective institutions. If a rivalry can be rooted in a clash of cultures, Cobbs points out that it can also do something pro sports owners care about deeply: “Rivalry can create commerce.”
“It brings eyeballs in terms of ratings, which drives advertising revenue, which drives media rights. And it also drives merchandise sales and sponsorship,” Cobbs said.
All of which could be a factor in the way forward for the NHL beyond this simple, pared-down pleasure of an all-Canadian season.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t go back to the old divisions beyond this year,” Cobbs said. “That frequency of play is going to allow for all these other elements to arise. It’s going to create some narratives between clubs that probably already had some basis going into the season. I don’t think one season is going to change the world when this league is very soaked in a solid history. But I think it’s going to exacerbate some existing fuel for rivalry, the fact that they’re going to play each other so frequently.
“And I think you’re going to see that fuel ignite. And you’re going to have the league recognize that.”