Following the NHL lockout, all you have heard about is this “New NHL”, a faster, better version of what most hockey fans already thought was a good product. Most of this has just been marketing spin and media hype when in reality the game was virtually the same (minus a little clutching and grabbing). Finally though, in 2012-2013 we will see the real “New NHL” following the radical realignment proposal that was ratified by the NHL early this week. There are a million questions and answers to come, but the most important one should be; What does this mean to the Flyers?

Every sports league is structured in some way, divisions, conferences, leagues, all leading towards one final matchup. Until Tuesday, the NHL and NBA had almost identical systems, 3 divisions per conferences, two conferences, 8 teams in playoffs from each, 1-8 and off you go. The new NHL system is much more unique and offers a much more conference centric approach.  The other three conferences aside from your own may as well be the same in the regular season, geography be damned. For the foreseeable future will play the same number of regular season games against the Vancouver Canucks as they do the Boston Bruins, and as a fan of the game this is a great move by the league.

The success of the system is predicated on one simple thing; that the rivalries in your conference are all that matter. Hurricanes, Devils, Rangers, Islanders, Penguins, Capitals. Those are the teams that you now have to hate and openly root against every chance you get. If you need a reason to hate any of those teams, here is a quick reason for each in order: Joni Pitkanen, 2000, Sean Avery, Most of the 80’s, Crosby, Ovechkin. It’s really a simple concept, hate the teams closest to you, because until the 3rd round of the playoffs, those are the only ones that really matter.

The Flyers have only played the Rangers or Islanders twice in the playoffs since 1988, that alone should tell you there is something lacking in the current system. This new system limits your possible playoff opponents to 6 teams in the first two rounds. Not only that, every regular season game against these opponents is magnified. When 6 points separate 3rd and 5th place in the conference come March and you are playing only conference opponents down the stretch, it will make for some phenomenal hockey.
If you have been overwhelmed, confused or just plain apathetic about these changes, don’t be. Be excited, it will give you as a fan the opportunity to hate a group of teams you already hate even more (and hopefully learn to hate the Hurricanes). Yes the thought of having to go through Crosby, Malkin, Fleury and the boys every year in either the first or second round is somewhat daunting, but to be the best you have to beat the best, so it shouldn’t matter when you play them. And yes, it saddens me to say if you gave me 15-1 odds that the new conference will be the Lemieux Conference, I’d probably put some action down on that, as I’m sure the NHL will do everything possible to associate this conference with all the successes in Western PA.

Change is scary, and as a hockey purist myself every time I hear the NHL is debating some sort of change it makes my skin crawl. That being said, they got it right this time. You will see better hockey, a greater variety of teams and get to indulge in beating the teams you really hate multiple times in the early rounds of the playoffs year after year. I for one will be excited the first the “Lemieux Conference Champion” banner goes up in the Wells Fargo Center, and you should be too.