The big weekend is here again. Americans take their minds off the minor mysteries of life, such as why Michael and Lisa Marie didn't just talk the whole thing out on Oprah, and instead turn to the Great Imponderable of Sports: Why is one conference so dominant?
Then at halftime of the Super Bowl, when viewers have seen all the new commercials and polished off that second bowl of chili and there is nothing to think about for the next 90 minutes except Deion's dance steps, some Americans—at least the ones who can follow a puck without the aid of Fox's blue-dot special—might turn to the Other Imponderable: Why is one NHL conference, the Eastern, so dominant?
"This is not an NFC-AFC thing," Philadelphia Flyers left wing John LeClair says. "The gap's not that wide."
Maybe not. The disparity between NFL conferences has become epochal in duration while the balance of NHL power probably still is cyclical (though five straight Stanley Cups and 22 in the last 28 years for the East make it the longest cycle since Richard Wagner's). In a midseason snapshot the East-West chasm looks as yawning as the crowd at Boston's new FleetCenter for the All-Star Game, which didn't turn vibrant until Bruins captain Ray Bourque scored with 37.3 seconds remaining last Saturday to give the East a 5-4 victory.
The 13-team Eastern Conference, known as the Prince of Wales until 1993 when commissioner Gary Bettman decided Americans know even less about royalty than they do about geography, is strong from the top down to way past the middle while the Western Conference has three good teams and lots of filler. The West took six of seven Cups from 1984 to 1990; however, all but one of those were won by the dynastic Edmonton Oilers. In the past five years four different Eastern clubs—the Pittsburgh Penguins (1991 and '92), the Montreal Canadiens (1993), the New York Rangers (1994) and the New Jersey Devils (1995)—have won the championship. At the All-Star break this season the Detroit Red Wings (32-9-3) had the league's best overall record, but the rest of the top five—the Rangers, the Florida Panthers, the Penguins and the Flyers—were from the East. And while Detroit had a winning record against the East (9-6-0), it was a gaudy 23-3-3 against the West. The only other Western Conference teams with winning records against the East were the transplanted Colorado Avalanche (7-6-4), who played in the Eastern Conference last season as the Quebec Nordiques, the Chicago Blackhawks (10-6-2) and the lowly Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (8-7-3). Overall the East, which had twice as many .500-plus teams (eight) as the West, was 102-85-25 head-to-head.
The Western Conference doesn't simply have fewer Cup contenders than the East. It also has all the really bad teams in the league, with the notable exception of the egregiously awful Ottawa Senators. Hockey's horrible include the disappointing San Jose Sharks, the dishwater-dull Dallas Stars and the Oilers, who have tried and so far failed to copy the success of the early 1980s when the young Oilers developed into one of the alltime great teams. The West—the far west, anyway—is a wasteland.
Here are four reasons why the East is the beast.
1) The Eastern Conference teams are bigger and tougher, and therefore better suited to the NHL's two-month playoff marathon.
The Red Wings cut a Visigothic swath through their 48 intraconference games in the lockout-shortened 1995 season, but their shortcomings were exposed in the Cup finals by the larger, grittier and equally quick Devils. If you blinked, you missed New Jersey's four-game sweep.
Detroit is every bit as talented this season but no tougher. Its top nine forwards give away on average more than two inches and 20 pounds to Philadelphia's, almost three inches and 19 pounds to Pittsburgh's and six pounds to the Rangers'. The thought of meeting the bruising Flyers every other night in June for the Cup, after getting through three preliminary playoff series, must be disquieting for Detroit. "Our team still could get tougher on the wings," Detroit center Sergei Fedorov says, "and we could use another tough defenseman."