The competition between Michigan and Ohio runs deep. The rivalry is largely personified through matchups in college sports between Ohio State University and the University of Michigan. As such, every meeting between the Buckeyes and Wolverines ends up being can’t-miss entertainment.
Until now, in hockey, there hasn’t ever really been an iteration of that rivalry between Michigan’s team, the Detroit Red Wings, and Ohio’s team, the Columbus Blue Jackets. Watching the close game between the two on Saturday night made me wonder if this could be a future rivalry.
There was a plethora of post-whistle tussles, great drama in a comeback effort from the Red Wings, and strong performances from the youth of both squads. Now that the teams are finally in sync — both retooling for the future — it is the perfect time for a rivalry to kick off.
No, the Red Wings & Blue Jackets Don’t Need to be in the Same Division
Yeah, the Blue Jackets are in the Metropolitan Division and the Red Wings are in the Atlantic. For a lot of people, that discounts any chance of a legit rivalry, but the difference doesn’t create as much of a divide as you might think.
Let’s look back at some classic out-of-division rivalries. The Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks of the early-2010s were in separate divisions. Even the Montreal Canadiens spent some time in a different division than their archrival Boston Bruins from 1974 to 1980. The phenomenon isn’t new to the Red Wings, if you’ll remember one of the more fiery rivalries of the 1990s, between them and the powerhouse Colorado Avalanche. So, the idea is not absurd.
In today’s NHL, the Jackets and Wings are in the same conference, but being out of a different division means they only play each other three times a year instead of four. That’s still close enough in my book to not be a real obstacle. In terms of the playoffs, the wild card system is in the same conference, which means that they could hypothetically play against each other in any of the first three rounds. That’s where rivalries are forged, and any chance to cross paths in the playoffs would further heighten the tension.
Blue Jackets & Red Wings Are Finally in Sync
Earlier in the year, The Hockey Writers’ Blue Jackets insider Mark Scheig and I got a chance to talk to longtime Red Wings play-by-play man Ken Kal. I asked him why hockey has yet to see a Michigan-Ohio rivalry as bloody as those in the college ranks, and he said it’s because the two teams have never been contenders at the same time.
“I think for a number of years, the Red Wings were always making the playoffs and the Blue Jackets they weren’t making the playoffs and they were trying to build their franchise and it was just taking a while for them to get to where they’re at and be a successful franchise – where I think they’re at right now,” Kal said.
His story checks out. The Jackets were a weaker team trying to find their footing for the first 15 years of their existence. It was really only around 2015 when they had finally built a core that could be a perennial playoff piece. That timing happened to coincide with the end of the Red Wings’ record 25-year playoff streak. Now both teams are retooling at the same time.
“I think once you get to where the Red Wings are really good and the Blue Jackets are really good, then you have the rivalry there,” Kal said. “Down the road, if the Red Wings and the Blue Jackets meet in the playoffs and start having some pretty good series then I think you’re going to the rivalry like the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry.”
Blue Jackets & Red Wings Have Young Star Power
Moving forward, these are two teams primed to take off. In Columbus, Blue Jackets general manager (GM) Jarmo Kekalainen is bringing in more talent than ever seen before in the organization’s history. There has been a shift towards acquiring elite offensive talent over their status quo of adding valuable two-way assets with more emphasis on a defence-first structure.
In Detroit, GM Steve Yzerman’s second “Yzerplan” is well underway with the Red Wings. If the successes he saw in Tampa Bay with the Lightning are any indication of how things will go in Detroit, they will be a contender in relatively short order. One would imagine he would stick around to see the fruits of his labour this time.
The youth movement in both markets has been on display all season long. Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider will be finalists for the Calder Trophy. At only 21 years old, Seider has already proven himself to be a number one defenseman at the NHL level, and Raymond has been a valuable top-six piece leading the way this year with captain Dylan Larkin. Other pieces to watch are the Filips: Zadina and Hronek. Zadina is a high draft pick that they’ve been waiting to take off for a while, and Hronek is a defenseman who’s taken a bit of flack, but still led the team in scoring last season. Others waiting to break into the lineup are Simon Edvinsson, William Wallinder, Jonatan Berggren and goaltender Sebastian Cossa.
The Jackets are about to see the next step in their youth movement, with the recent signing of their top-prospect Kent Johnson, who looks like Trevor Zegras 2.0. The emergence of Cole Sillinger and Yegor Chinakhov as legitimate everyday NHL players this season is also promising. Don’t forget that Zach Werenski, Patrik Laine, Texier, Adam Boqvist, and Jake Bean are all key pieces under 25 years old, and there’s another potential goalie of the future waiting in the wings in Daniil Tarasov. That’s not even mentioning prospects Kirill Marchenko, Corson Ceulemans, Dmitry Voronkov, or Liam Foudy. The talent is there for both these teams to be legitimate contenders not too far down the road.
The Rivalry Would Be Beautiful
There are always teams that sports fans love to hate. All of the names listed above, in combination with two world-class general managers, give a real possibility of these teams becoming contenders in the not-too-distant future. Throw in a couple of playoff matches and you’re cooking with gas.
For the Blue Jackets, whose only real rival has been the Pittsburgh Penguins, expanding the horizons a bit and finding a new team to hate wouldn’t be a bad thing. If the tensions, theatre, and bad blood displayed in Saturday night’s game show any glimpse into the future, it would be a fun ride that would give a new flavour to the Michigan-Ohio rivalry that’s already in place in the NCAA.
Writer covering the Columbus Blue Jackets for THW since August 2021.
Co-host of the Blue Jackets’ focused “Union Junction Podcast” on The Hockey Writers’ podcast network.
Also, a radio personality and reporter currently based on Vancouver Island.