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NHL votes to realign to four conferences

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks with the media prior to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final...

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks with the media prior to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final Vancouver, B.C., June 1, 2011. (MIKE BLAKE/Reuters)

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:45 AM ET

PEBBLE BEACH, CALIF. - Like the big waves that crash on the rocks close to the hotel where NHL governors are meeting, a big wave of change swept over the NHL Monday.

The league's board of governors voted to scrap its current alignment and go with a four-conference configuration starting next season.

The league will have two conferences of seven teams and two of eight and the regular-season schedule will see each team play every other team in a home-and-home-series, with the rest of the games heavily weighted towards divisional play. Also, the first two rounds of the playoffs will be played within each conference, using a 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3 format.

Alignment is always one of the most contentious issues in the NHL since just about every team has its own agenda, its own goals, its own demands. The current debate on alignment was divided along Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference lines with the teams in the East more than happy with the status quo and several teams in the West crying out for change.

"This is not a subject that everybody is going to get their first choice on. What you try and do is come up with something everybody can live with, get comfortable with and understand the value of because if you ask 30 clubs and you'll probably get 30 different solutions. That's what makes this a difficult process at its worst," Bettman said.

"We think this will be good."

Any proposal for realignment required a two-third majority for passage and TSN reported 26 teams voted in favour of the change. It was thought it would be a close vote going in, but Bettman once again showed his command of the room.

"It's typical Gary Bettman. It's like a Chicago election in the 30s," said Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke. "He's got a pretty good idea which way it's going -- not that it's fixed -- but he's got a pretty good sense of where the votes are going to come.

"I think it makes sense for our league. I think it helps a couple of partners that really need this."

The Players Association will now have a chance to weigh in on the matter.

"Realignment requires an agreement between the league and the NHLPA," said PA spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon. "We look forward to continuing our discussions with the league regarding this matter."

The teams with the greatest desire for change were the Detroit Red Wings, Columbus Blue Jackets and the Dallas Stars, mostly because almost all their current divisional opponents are in other time zones and televised games start late in their markets.

All of the Stars' divisional opponents, for instance, are two time zones away.

"We're thrilled," said Wings general manager Ken Holland.

"There were a lot of thoughtful cases made," said Jets chairman and governor Mark Chipman, "but not in such a way that people were just trying to advance their own interest."

The governors' other option was to simply move Columbus or Detroit into the Southeast Division and the Jets into the open spot in the Central Division.

One of the concerns of the Eastern teams was a shift to a four-division format, which includes a home-and-away set with every team in the league, would spike travel costs to the tune of anywhere between $500,000-$1 million a team.

Another consideration in the hopper is the fate of the Phoenix Coyotes. The league continues to own and run the franchise in Glendale.

"There's really nothing new to report other than we're continuing discussions with a couple of potentially interested purchasers," said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

"Nothing has changed to make the situation worse or substantially better," said Bettman, who left the door open for the league to continue to run the Coyotes.

This new alignment plan -- with the two seven team conferences in the east -- could ease the migration of the Coyotes from the west to east without having to redo the whole thing over again.

"There is flexibility in this format which is perhaps one of the reasons why people are comfortable. We're not planning any moves. We don't want any moves," said Bettman, "but if we find ourselves confronted with one the way it is set up, gives us a little bit more flexibility."


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