Sunday Mashup: Has the word “rivalry” lost all meaning?


I was perusing Twitter Saturday morning when I came across this gem from @hockeynight:

How strong is the rivalry between the @MapleLeafs and @NHLBlackhawks? You’ll see tonight 6:30pm ET. #hockeynight

— HockeyNightInCanada (@hockeynight) October 19, 2013

There are few words in the sports world that are as overused and over-debated as the word “rivalry”. What does it mean? From

ri·val·ry  (rvl-r)

n. pl. ri·val·ries

1. The act of competing or emulating.

2. The state or condition of being a rival.

OK, in that case, every single matchup in sports is considered a rivalry, because every team is in an act of competition with every other team. But we, the sports fans, know better, don’t we? Do you have the same sense of anticipation and animosity in a Tuesday night game in Florida as you would on a Saturday night at the Bell Centre? Of course not! All rivalries are simply not created equally. So then, what are some qualifiers we need to come up with to choose the true rivalries from the fake, made-for-TV ones?

1. History. This is what makes Leafs-Habs games the best of the year in my opinion. Sure, the teams haven’t played in a playoff series in a while (1978-79, to be exact), but some rivalries never die, and that’s the case here. Its roots are in the old battles between English and French Canada, and even though the feud isn’t the same, there remains a bit of political tension between Quebec and the rest of Canada. Other rivalries such as Habs-Bruins and Blackhawks-Red Wings were started back in the Original Six days, and remain to this day.

2. Geography. There’s the Battle of Ontario and the Battle of Alberta. How about that vicious three-way rivalry between the Rangers, Islanders and Devils? Or the battles between the two Pennsylvanian tenants: the Flyers and Penguins? California may not be a traditional hockey hotbed, but there’s plenty of ill will tossed around between the three teams hanging out in that state. They even have their own blog ( dedicated to hating on each other.

3. Division and Conference. I think we can all agree two teams who are not in the same conference can’t really be considered a rivalry. You just can’t truly build up a hatred for a team you only get to see once or twice a year. I don’t think you necessarily need to be in the same division to be considered a rival, but it certainly helps. What’s that thing people used to say? Absence makes the heart grow fonder? Well, it’s like that, but the opposite. In my case, the four teams I hate the most (Habs, Bruins, Sens and Sabres) are all in the same division as the Leafs, so that’s handy.

4. Playoff History. Is it still considered a rivalry if one team continually beats another in the playoffs? At any rate, at least those four consecutive playoff series in the early 2000s between the Leafs and Sens helped both fan bases hate each other in new and creative ways. There was the time Daniel Alfredsson hit Darcy Tucker from behind . Or the time Daniel Alfredsson pretended to throw his stick in the crowd to mock Mats Sundin (I’m still not really sure why we got so upset about that, but anyway, we did). Or the time Tie Domi knocked Martin Havlat unconscious with a late, blindside hit. During those days, the Battle of Ontario was at its fiercest. Canucks-Blackhawks is another example of a rivalry being taken up a notch thanks to a few memorable playoff battles.

Anyway, those are a few qualifiers I can think of right now. There might be some more I’m forgetting.

So let’s revisit that @hockeynight tweet. Is Leafs-Blackhawks a certifiable rivalry? I’m writing this on Saturday afternoon, so maybe something happened in the game last night which made everybody in Toronto and Chicago instantly hate each other with a newfound passion. But barring an incident of that magnitude, Leafs-Blackhawks should not be considered a real rivalry.

Was it a rivalry back in the 60s? I’m sure it was. I remember reading about the playoff series the two teams battled it out in 1967, starring Bobby Hull, Dave Keon, Stan Mikita, George Armstrong, Tony Esposito, Johnny Bower and company. But unfortunately, the expansion era seems to have killed it. I can’t even remember the last time the Leafs and Blackhawks played against each other. Hence why teams in separate conferences can’t really be rivals.

This isn’t an indictment of HNIC. They’re trying to sell ad revenue and attract eyeballs, so they’re going to play up those old Original Six battles like none other. Part of the reason we love hockey is the history, so those battles should be celebrated. Let’s just not pretend they’re reason enough to call these teams rivals.


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