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North Bay’s return sparks case for OHL to create a North Division; here’s how to sell it

Northern rivals Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury are not in the same conference (OHL Images)

Convincing people to buy in to change is often 10 times more than the change that's been suggested.

Chances are, once the Brampton Battalion complete their march to North Bay, the status quo might prevail in the Ontario Hockey League. The easy way out is for the Troops to stay in the Central Division of the Eastern Conference. They'll have a natural rival with the Sudbury Wolves, but there would still be a division that runs from Northern Ontario all the way to the Canada-U.S. border. That is not ideal competitively in a league with teenage athletes, many of whom are attending school. The Wolves and Western Conference's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds already deal with unique challenges due to geography, so maybe there is a way to avoid subjecting a third team to it.

So when Terry Doyle posed the question of whether the OHL should realign or leave the North Bays be, a fan named Graham Kemble (@CKhabsfan) stepped up with an intriguing suggestion.

That would involve six franchises changing conferences in order to create a North Division. It is tough to imagine how OHL commissioner David Branch would finesse and arm-twist the league's board of governors into going for such a plan. The Kitchener Rangers and London Knights in opposite conferences?! But it should not get shot down on general principle.

The OHL purports that it balances its priorities as a business with helping teenagers play competitive hockey and not neglect their formal education. The travel involved in the OHL (which granted, is less than that in the other two major junior leagues) works against that aim. It also has an effect on some team's competitiveness. Perhaps fans who watch a well-rested team blow out a tired opponent on Sunday afternoon don't mind, but it's the reality.

From Jeff Giffen:

Who could blame the Wolves and their fans for supporting such a development. A natural rival less than an hour and a half down Highway 17, an opportunity to play midweek road games and have the players at home and in their own beds before midnight. Ditto for Wolves fans. It's a luxury southern Ontario teams enjoy and it would mean much less wear and tear on the locals.

It would also eliminate four road trips to Brampton, likely meaning the Wolves could avoid two or three of those grueling three-games-in-three-days weekends like the one just completed.

The locals don't like to use travel as an excuse as there is no avoiding it, but it has to be factored in. Sunday's game in Brampton was a prime example. The Wolves played at home Friday and Saturday night — all the way to a shootout against Ottawa on Saturday no less — then boarded a bus at 7 a.m. Sunday to head to Brampton for a 2 p.m. tilt. Meanwhile, Brampton didn't play Saturday. Yes, these are teenagers in fantastic physical condition, but that is just not enough recovery time for anyone, especially when facing a well-rested opponent. (The Sudbury Star)

How would one sell the 20 teams on going along with this? Under the Kemble Plan, the Erie Otters, Guelph Storm and Kitchener Rangers move to the Eastern Conference. Central Ontario rivals Barrie and Owen Sound, who already play six times a season, move to the West along with the Battalion.

Here's the pitch for the Kemble Plan.

East Division (Belleville Bulls, Kingston Frontenacs, Oshawa Generals, Ottawa 67's, Peterborough Petes) — None of you will lose a traditional rivalry, so what is it to you to tweak the other three divisions? Realigning the Central also swaps out longer road trips within the conference to Barrie and Sudbury in exchange for travelling to Erie. That's a wash, depending on winter weather the traffic at the U.S. border crossing. This could also mean fewer trips through the traffic-congested Toronto-area highways.

Central Division (Erie Otters, Guelph Storm, Kitchener Rangers, Mississauga Steelheads, Niagara IceDogs) — The Rangers' support would be critical. They wouldn't necessarily lose three home dates per season vs. London, since an arrangement similar to the current Barrie-Owen Sound and Niagara-Erie interconference rivalries or London-Sarnia interdivision rivalry is possible. (Those teams  have six games a season rather than the two or four they would otherwise.)

Kitchener also has full arena 34 times a season regardless of whether it's playing Plymouth, London or Peterborough. The Rangers and Storm switching conferences might also help address the fact only one Eastern team has won the league in the past 11 seasons.

Realignment could aid with marketing Connor McDavid (OHL Images)The longest drive within the division would be five hours, from Kitchener to Erie. The Rangers and Guelph Storm keep their natural rivalry. So do the Steelheads and IceDogs, AKA Current Mississauga and Old Mississauga. Niagara and Erie in the same division would formalize an existing rivalry. Plus this plan means the Toronto media don't have to travel as much to drool over Connor McDavid for the next two seasons.

West Division (London Knights, Plymouth Whalers, Saginaw Spirit, Sarnia Sting, Windsor Spitfires) — Same as the previous verse, could the Knights be sold on this if more Rangers games was offered as a sweetener? The Knights' brand sells itself. It would not hurt that much to move from the Midwest to the West division. The other four teams get a great tradeoff: two more visits per season from one of the league's best drawing cards and two fewer trips north to the Soo.

North Division (Barrie Colts, North Bay Battalion, Owen Sound Attack, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, Sudbury Wolves) — Let's presume the northern triad, the Colts and the Attack are on board. The only notwithstanding clause is that going from Owen Sound to Sault Ste. Marie involves a nine-hour drive around Lake Huron. Okay, so Barrie would not be happy, either, and one probably can't get away with telling them to suck it up like everyone in the QMJHL and WHL does.

How could the other 15 teams be persuaded? All five clubs' traditional preferred dates make for relatively comfortable travel. Play in Barrie or North Bay on Thursday night (long the Battalion's regular fixture in Brampton) before heading farther north for two more games. Start a three-game swing in Sault Ste. Marie and then move south. It would be onerous with any option, but the rest of the league's travel burden is somewhat eased.

It could take a couple of years of having North Bay in the league before someone talks seriously about realigning. Change is gradual, but the Kemble Plan is worth studying.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at neatesager@yahoo.ca and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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