It’s time to talk about the Blue Jackets-Penguins rivalry.
On July 31, NBC released its schedule of NHL games to be nationally televised during the 2017-18 season. Of the nearly one hundred games scheduled, the Columbus Blue Jackets will grace NBC’s networks once. The game? An October 25th matchup against the Buffalo Sabres, marketed as part of NBC’s “Wednesday Night Rivalry” series.
That’s right: nothing screams “rivalry” more than two teams in different divisions that really couldn’t care less about each other.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, meanwhile, will be featured on NBC channels sixteen times during the regular season. Of these sixteen games, four are part of the Wednesday Night Rivalry series, with the Pens playing Metropolitan Division opponents the Washington Capitals, the Philadelphia Flyers, and the New York Rangers, as well as, inexplicably, the St. Louis Blues.
So, maybe NBC just doesn’t know what a rivalry is. But there’s also something that needs to be discussed, and that’s the aversion of hockey media and fans to calling the relationship between the Penguins and the Blue Jackets what it is: a rivalry.
Examining the Blue Jackets-Penguins Rivalry
On paper, no one would disagree. The Pens and the Jackets are divisional opponents in close geographic proximity to each other. They’ve faced each other twice in the playoffs in the past five years. Games between the two teams are almost always sellouts, no matter which city they’re played in. And the hatred that fans have for the opposing team is tangible; few names will make a Penguins fan’s blood boil like Brandon Dubinsky.
So, what’s the issue? Where is the Penguins-Blue Jackets Wednesday Night Rivalry game? And why are Pittsburgh fans quick to accept the Caps and the Flyers as rivals, but hesitant when it comes to the Jackets?
The “Little Brother” Mindset
The first explanation simple: Columbus just hasn’t been around for that long. By NHL team standards, the Jackets are still babies. Other than the Vegas Golden Knights, they and the Minnesota Wild are the league’s newest franchises, joining the league in the 2000-01 season. It should also be noted that the Jackets and the Penguins did not play in the same division until the Metropolitan Division was formed.
Since the Jackets are so new to the league, it’s possible that Pens fans simply think of the Jackets less as a rival and more as a “little brother” team. The Jackets have not been regarded as a serious threat until quite recently, having only made the playoffs three times in franchise history. (Two of those playoff appearances featured first round match-ups against the Penguins.) It’s understandable; it’s difficult to consider a team your rival when they don’t present any real competition. But the Jackets are continuing to grow into a force in both the Metro and the league. Pens fans can currently rest easy with their 4-1 playoff series win, but they may want to start keeping a closer eye on their little brother.
The Metropolitan Division is Extremely Competitive
The Metropolitan Division, formed prior to the 2013-14 season, is the most competitive division in the league right now. The Metro also contains some of the oldest and most intense rivalries in the NHL, such as Flyers-Penguins and Islanders-Rangers. The Metro’s level of competition only feeds into these rivalries. This is one thing that NBC gets right; the Pens do have fierce rivalries with the Flyers, the Capitals, and to a lesser extent, the Rangers. Fans want to watch rivalries.
So, why is NBC hesitant to show games that would almost certainly draw in viewers? You’re probably not going to see many people watching the big Blue Jackets-Sabres game who aren’t Blue Jackets or Sabres fan. A Blue Jackets-Penguins game, on the other hand, is going to appeal much more to hockey fans as a whole. It’s beneficial to the NHL to build upon the rivalries that are already there.
Why are the NHL and NBC hesitant to encourage rivalries when they’re clearly good for business? Is there a limit to how many rivals a team (in this case, the Penguins) can have? Is competitive spirit a limited resource?
The reasons for the dismissal of the Blue Jackets-Penguins rivalry are numerous. Fans are hesitant to give credibility to a newer team when they could lean on the tried and true rivalries of the good old days. But teams don’t need a fifty year history to be rivals. They simply need an intense competitive spirit and a hatred reserved especially for each other, and the Blue Jackets and Penguins have that. Maybe one day we’ll get to watch a Blue Jackets-Penguins Wednesday Night Rivalry game. For now, Jackets fans get to practice pretending to hate the Sabres.
PITTSBURGH, PA – APRIL 20: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins shakes hands with Brandon Dubinsky #17 of the Columbus Blue Jackets after a 5-2 win in Game Five of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG Paints Arena on April 20, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)