Flyers forward Jakub Voracek yells at the Penguins bench while being restrained by Evegni Malkin. (Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)
All of Sunday's NHL games affected the playoff race, but three of them – the three established regional rivalries – all had a little extra zest to them. The history and emotion behind those rivalries is what the league's most financially successful teams have built their fortunes on.
Sunday's NHL action featured five games, all of which had implications on the playoff race. But of those five, three had a little extra depth to them. The Blackhawks/Blues, Senators/Leafs and Flyers/Penguins games weren't necessarily more exciting than the Capitals' win over Detroit or Montreal's 4-1 victory against Florida, but the regional rivalries always have a discernible zest to them that sets them apart – and that comprises the financial backbone of the league's most profitable teams.
The Leafs' season has been abysmal and both their players and fans have looked like they'd checked out of things weeks ago, but Toronto's players and fans got an emotional jolt in a 2-1 shootout win that dealt Ottawa's playoff hopes a serious blow. The Flyers did more or less the same thing to the Penguins, only Philadelphia needed just three periods to squash the Pens 4-1 and jeopardize Pittsburgh's post-season hopes. And the Blues and Hawks have the best kind of rivalry – one in which both teams are headed to the playoffs this year and are jousting for top spot in their division.
Sorry, Detroit vs. Washington and Montreal vs. Florida, but you're going to have an uphill battle trying to replicate the emotion seen in those type of games.
You want to know one of the reasons why hockey has struggled to take root in places like Arizona and South Florida? Because neither of those regions have been able to establish meaningful rivalries on the level of a Battle of Ontario or Alberta, or a New York City-area showdown between two of the Rangers, Devils and Islanders. Some of that can be chalked up to the Coyotes' and Panthers' prolonged mismanagement and/or lack of support from ownership, because you don't build rivals of import unless you're consistently participating in playoff games. It doesn't always have to be about having a city in close geographic proximity, either: the Red Wings built a fierce conflict with the Avalanche, and it's an 18-hour drive between Detroit and Denver.
However – and Twitter teaches us this every day – people also have an innate need to loathe. Maybe former NHL chief disciplinarian Colin Campbell was right when he said in 2007 the league sells hate. People won't be completely happy if their team doesn't win a Stanley Cup, but if the team they can't stand the sight of doesn't win, they won't be completely unhappy. And those are the fans and sentiments teams have to cultivate to sustain them at the box office through lean competitive years. During an era in which teams are fond of choosing "dynamic ticket pricing", developing connections to at least two or three opponents (preferably within your division, so as to maximize the number of regular-season games you can stage) has to be a primary goal for any ownership group.
On some level, the NHL has to be better at marketing its top individual players on all 30 franchises so that, on any given night, an NHL team's fan base can look at the schedule and be inspired to buy a ticket or watch a game based on their connection to the characters and personalities involved. It's not just about the logo on the front of the jersey that spurs fans to dispose of their disposable income in the NHL's coffers, it's about the talent and the human beings inside it.
But there's something (OK, there's a lot) to be said for establishing links that transcend players in any particular generation. When the Canadiens take on the Leafs, or when the San Jose Sharks battle the Los Angeles Kings, there's an extra layer of interest that's not evident in any run-of-the-mill game. And when teams that are struggling to sell tickets – or potential owners of an expansion team – are seeking out a foundation on which to build a long-term thriving hockey business, they need to focus on creating and growing one or two hard-core hate-ons with other organizations.
Love may make the world go round, but hate is a great backup generator to use when the rotations get boring or discouraging.