Do you remember a time when the National Hockey League used to have divisions named after actual, notable people, and not just vague geographic suggestion?
Starting with the 1974-75 season, the NHL reorganized itself from two bloated eight-team divisions, dubbed “East” and “West,” which gradually morphed over seven years to accommodate 10 expansion franchises.
In their place were born four new divisions, initially numbered sequentially from Division 1 to Division 4 upon their announcement on August 28th, 1973.
- Division 1 would be the New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers, Atlanta Flames and a 1976 expansion franchise that was yet to be awarded.
- Division 2 included the Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings, and Washington Capitals.
- Division 3 consisted of the Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota North Stars, Kansas City Scouts, St. Louis Blues, and Vancouver Canucks.
- Division 4 comprised the Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, California Golden Seals, Toronto Maple Leafs, and a second 1976 expansion team.
Obviously geographic convenience was not a high priority, as eight months of negotiations came up with this distribution of teams, where west-coast clubs found themselves scattered across divisions. Instead it appeared that the league set their sights on splitting up the powerhouse teams — Montreal, Chicago, Boston, and the Rangers — and grouping them with expansion franchises and weaker teams. The divisional champions were all but assured headed into the first season of this alignment.
The new divisions wouldn’t get their names until a few days before the start of the 1974-75 season.
Division 1 was to be known as the Lester Patrick Division, named after the hockey innovator who introduced, among other things, the blue line, the forward pass, playoffs, and the penalty shot. He also pioneered jersey numbers to identify players, as well as allowing goaltenders to leave their feet to make a save. He coached the New York Rangers for 13 seasons.
Division 2 was named the James Norris Sr. Division, after the Montreal-born owner of the Detroit Red Wings.
Division 3 would be the Conn Smythe Division, named after the long-time owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and veteran of both World Wars.
Division 4 was to be known as the Charles F. Adams Division, named after the founder of the Boston Bruins franchise.
If you have been following thus far, you would have noticed that the Montreal Canadiens were put into the Norris Division, not the more commonly familiar Adams Division. It is indeed in the Norris Division where the Canadiens utterly dominated over their peers, winning seven consecutive division championships.
The 1976-77 season of 132 points is generally regarded as one of the best seasons ever by an NHL team.
The divisional team that managed to best keep up with the Canadiens during this span was the Los Angeles Kings, led by Marcel Dionne, twice challenging the Canadiens for the top spot but falling just short in these attempts.
The Canadiens never lost a season series against a Norris Division rival, with their opponents only managing to tie a season series on two occasions: The Kings went 3-3-2 in 1978-79 and the Penguins went 2-2-0 in 1980-81. In 32 games played against one another from 1974 to 1979, the Washington Capitals never beat the Canadiens.
In March 1979, the Capitals were probably glad to find out that they would be moving to the Patrick Division in order to accomodate the newcomer Hartford Whalers, who joined the NHL as an expansion team from of the World Hockey Association.
The 1979-80 Whalers, with a 51-year-old Gordie Howe and a 41-year-old Bobby Hull, are probably the team that gave the Canadiens the hardest time, pulling three ties out of them in four encounters. The Canadiens only beat them once, the lowest winning percentage against any team in this span.
Montreal Canadiens vs. Norris Division teams, 1974-81
- Washington Capitals: 30-0-2
- Detroit Red Wings: 28-4-8
- Pittsburgh Penguins: 28-7-5
- Los Angeles Kings: 23-8-9
- Hartford Whalers: 4-1-3
Along with the divisional re-alignment in 1974 came a new playoff format where the top-seeded team received an automatic bye into the second round, so for the four consecutive Stanley Cup victories, the Canadiens only played three series as opposed to four. In fact, since only teams receiving byes in the first round were winning Stanley Cups (1975 was Philadelphia before Montreal won their four in a row), the league changed the playoff format for the 1979-80 season to give the other teams a fighting chance.
In December 1980, team owners met in Palm Beach, Florida to re-align the divisions once again, because there was an imbalance, and rising cost of travel necessitated a geography-based optimization.
From Le Soleil, the following alignments were suggested:
- Smythe: Montreal, Quebec, Toronto, Buffalo, Detroit
- Adams: Minnesota, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg
- Patrick: NY Rangers, NY Islanders, Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburgh
- Norris: Boston, Hartford, Chicago, St. Louis, Colorado
La Presse reported later that a more likely Smythe Division would include Montreal, Quebec, Boston, Hartford, and Buffalo. Ultimately this ended up being the correct alignment, except that the group would in fact be the Adams Division, in which the Canadiens would play for the next 12 seasons, winning their final Stanley Cup in 1993 before the names were replaced by geographic hints for 1993-94.
The Canadiens are well known for their years spent in the Adams Division and their classic division rivalries with Boston and Quebec, but it is in the Norris Division where they rode their 70s dynasty to legendary highs, a historical footnote that has faded in time.