SUN Hockey Pool

The wild West!

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:16 AM ET

The Oilers always said they wanted a Western League team.

Now they've got one. They are one.

The NHL released its new, rivalry-based schedule yesterday and the slogan in Edmonton is "All West, All The Time," with a whopping 72 of Edmonton's 82 games against Western Conference opponents.

If you like your hockey best when there's anger in the air and blood on the ice, then you're going to love this.

"The reason they went this route was to be fan-friendly, the research tells us this is what our fans wanted to see," said Edmonton general manager Kevin Lowe, whose club will play three of its first 10 games against Colorado, including the season-opener Oct. 5.

"A lot of people believe that if you get the rivalries going again you're going to get the kind of hatred you had in the old days."

Nastiness seems a virtual certainty with Edmonton playing natural enemies Calgary, Colorado and Vancouver eight times each. You want high stakes and hot tempers? Grab a calendar and circle March 21, 23 and 25, when the Oilers play the Canucks three straight times in the middle of the stretch drive. "That's going to be very interesting," grinned Lowe.

The whole year is going to be a kick. If you're going to play an unbalanced schedule like this, you want to be in the west, where the teams and the hockey have long been vastly superior. Dallas, Detroit and St. Louis mean another 12 games with decent hooks to them.

Columbus, with Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev, gets more appealing every year, while Anaheim and Phoenix, not much to look at in '04, will be massive drawing cards when free agents start flocking to the sun belt to play for Wayne Gretzky's Coyotes and Brian Burke's soon-to-be-renamed Mighty Ducks. Markus Naslund and Peter Forsberg are already said to be looking for beach houses.

Even Minnesota's visits will be interesting. If the ironically named Wild decide to keep trapping, it'll be a study to see if the new rules help Edmonton pick apart and destroy the trap's creator, Jacques Lemaire.

All that leaves are games against San Jose, L.A., Nashville and Chicago, which aren't bad draws right now, given the playoff implications, and could be even bigger when all the free agency stuff shakes down.

"I think that's why the league had some comfort in going that route," said Lowe. "Rivalries always sell. It puts a little more pressure on the players because it's going to make for a lot of tough hockey, but we think this is going to drive fan interest."

On the flip side, the Eastern Conference might as well be on the moon for all the times they'll be visiting Edmonton. From now on, divisions out west will host only one eastern division and visit another on an annual rotating basis. This year Edmonton hosts the Northeast (Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and Buffalo) and visits the Atlantic.

It means the Oil will be playing in Pittsburgh this year, but Sidney Crosby and Mario Lemieux won't be coming to Rexall, nor will the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, nor will the always popular Philadelphia Flyers. And we won't see Mark Messier a final time unless he signs out west or in the Northeast division (or plays for the Oilers).

It's a bummer that we'll only see Washington's Alexander Ovechkin, Atlanta's Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk and Original Six favourites once every three years, but at least we won't have to sit through Florida, Carolina, Buffalo or the Islanders, either.

"The hot-ticket teams, they change from year to year, it's cyclical," said Lowe. "Pittsburgh is huge now, but they weren't a few years ago. Those things change, but rivalries don't.

"For Edmonton, Dallas is now a bigger draw than Montreal and Toronto. If you're going to base a schedule on something, you can't go wrong with rivalries - that's where you always see the best hockey."


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