Which is better? Travel, superstars and style of play make it an interesting debate.
As the Predators take to the Bridgestone Arena ice tonight against the New York Islanders, the team, as well as their fans will get a chance to see an opponent whose appearances in Nashville are fairly infrequent. Under the NHL’s current scheduling format, Eastern and Western Conference teams face each other just once per regular season, except for three “wild card” teams that play each other twice, once in each city.
The Islanders have not played in Nashville since December 20, 2008, a span of nearly two years. The Predators may request the league’s schedule makers to try and include the Islanders as one of next season’s wild cards since the Predators are 5-2-0 in the Islanders’ seven previous trips here.
When it comes to travel, it is no secret that teams from the Eastern Conference have it much easier than their Western Conference counterparts. The Eastern teams are basically located up and down the eastern seaboard, while the Western teams occupy the better part of three quarters of North America. All 15 teams in the East are located in the Eastern Time Zone, while the 15 in the West are spread across all four time zones.
Following Monday night’s game in Nashville, the New York Islanders play just four of their remaining 54 games outside of the Eastern Time Zone, and all four of those games come in a seven-day span in early January when they take a road trip through Calgary, Edmonton, Colorado and Chicago. As a comparison, in the month of January alone, the Predators play at least one game in all four times zones, including two separate trips to the West Coast.
The great distances that separate a lot of the Western cities and the changes in time zones make the already rigorous 82-game regular season schedule even tougher.
“The travel is way harder in the West than the East,” President of Hockey Operations/General Manager David Poile said. “(In the East) you’ve got some bus trips, some train tips and a lot of trips within an hour. Our trips are longer. We have to go to the Pacific Northwest twice, we have to go to California twice and catch Phoenix and Colorado somewhere along the line. So our travel is pretty difficult in comparison to Boston, New York or Washington”
Hockey players have game day routines. From the time they wake up to the time they get to the rink to get dressed for the game’s warm-up, keeping to a set schedule is something that the players do almost automatically. Going from time zone to time zone can really alter a player’s internal clock.
Predator defenseman Shane O’Brien has played at the geographic extremes of the NHL. After starting his career in Anaheim, he moved on to Tampa Bay and then Vancouver before being traded to Nashville just prior to the start of this season. Coming from a Northwest Division team to one in the Central, O’Brien is finding the travel a little bit easier.
“You can notice it because everything in our division is an hour (flight),” O’Brien said. “When you are out in Vancouver, the closest is an hour and a half and Minnesota is close to three hours, so you do notice the difference.”
Team color commentator Terry Crisp has coached in both conferences. His Calgary Flames team won the Stanley Cup in 1989. During that season, he sat down with a professor of psychology from the University of Calgary to map out the team’s calendar, including all practices and scheduled days off. As the season progressed, the professor even dictated specific days off and planned practices of about 20 minutes in length to keep the players’ minds and bodies fresh for the long run through the regular season and playoffs.
Western Conference teams often have longer road trips as compared to Eastern teams as well. This season, the Predators have two separate stretches that keep them away from Bridgestone Arena for longer than two weeks. While long times away from home can be difficult, especially for the players who have young families, there are some benefits to being road warriors.
Predator left wing Steve Sullivan has played in both conferences and has seen both sides of East-West travel.
“In the East, you are home a little more and you spend more nights in your own bed,” Sullivan said. “There are pros and cons to both. Team bonding is a big thing. In the West, you get more time to do that because your road trips are six, seven, 10 days long. You get a couple of days where it is just the road and the boys, so there are no distractions.”
Unfamiliar foes can pose a challenge for players and coaching staffs though. Since they do not see teams from the other conferences on a regular basis, preparing a game plan requires a lot of work from scouts and the team video coordinator.
“You don’t have a real feel for what they are,” Predators Head Coach Barry Trotz said. “Those are tougher ones to prepare for.”
Poile thinks that despite more star power in the East, the West is best.
“Arguably, you might say the three best players in the league are (Steven) Stamkos, (Alex) Ovechkin, and (Sidney) Crosby, and they are all in the East,” he said. “As teams vs. individuals, the West seems to be a little better. It is certainly proven by the won/loss record.”
Crisp doesn’t think there is one style of play that defines either conference.
“Both conferences have teams that are swift that use speed, skill and have a lot of tough teams in them too,” he said.
As a veteran of many Battle of Alberta games against the Edmonton Oilers, Crisp thinks that games between teams from the East and the West sometimes lack the intensity of divisional or conference foes.
“We only see them once a year, maybe twice,” Crisp said. “You don’t get a real grip on them. You don’t get a real hate for anybody. You don’t get a dislike, a rivalry.”
From a player’s standpoint, Sullivan echoed Crisp’s sentiments regarding getting motivated for East-West games.
“You have to get your mind ready to go, find a way to make sure you are ready when the puck drops,” Sullivan said. “It’s not a hatred, but you still need the two points.”