"Travel is a far bigger factor than I thought it would be," Colorado coach Marc Crawford says. "The effects can strike you at any time. At the start of a road trip, at the end of a road trip, even at home—because guys start thinking about another long road trip that starts next, week. You lose practice days to travel, but it also affects how you practice. You lose quality in your practices because of fatigue."
4) Money has tilted the balance of power.
Although only three of the top 10 payrolls in 1996 are from teams in the Eastern Conference, financial difficulties have sapped the strength of some good Western Conference teams. In Edmonton small-market economics forced the Oilers to scatter Gretzky, Messier, Fuhr, Kevin Lowe, Glenn Anderson, Marty McSorley and MacTavish throughout the league. Calgary, the 1989 Cup winner, still has stars like Fleury and Gary Roberts remaining from its good teams, but the cost of maintaining a winner was overwhelming. Checking center Joel Otto, 40-goal scorer Robert Reichel and dependable goaltender Mike Vernon are among those pricey players who are no longer with the team.
Maybe one or two mid-level trades that bulk up the Red Wings or the maturation of the youthful Avalanche will help reverse the Eastern dominance come Stanley Cup time. But right now the smart bet is to take the East against the spread. If hockey's balance of power is cyclical, the West is pedaling up a steep hill.