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Good luck wrapping your head around the ECHL's realignment

The Alaska Aces are reigning champions of a division that no longer exists -- so long, Mountain Division, and hello, Pacific Division.

Their new competitors in the Western Conference include four teams -- Kalamazoo Wings, Fort Wayne Komets, expansion Indy Fuel and Evansville IceMen -- they will not play a single time in their 72 regular-season games next season.

Three of those new Western Conference-mates are located -- not to put too fine a point on it -- in the Eastern Time Zone, and the fourth does business in the Central Time Zone.

Meanwhile, the Colorado Eagles, surely proud members of the new Midwest Division that also includes Kalamazoo, Fort Wayne, Indianapolis and Evansville, play a whopping three of their 72 regular-season games against division opponents. Yes, nothing screams divisional showdown like that three-game set Kalamazoo has in Colorado in March because that battle is totally going to be a continuation of -- well, nothing, really.

Just trying to wrap your head around the ECHL's new conference and divisional alignments, unveiled Tuesday, has left us with, as they say in hockey, an upper-body injury -- specifically, concussion-like symptoms.

Welcome to minor-league hockey, where geography is relative, expenses are tight, scheduling is difficult and there exists such a thing as the four-game series -- the Bakersfield Condors play the Aces here four times in five nights in early November. Oh, joy.

And how about that Aces schedule? In their first 20 games, they play the Stockton Thunder eight times and the Condors five times. And those eight matches against Stockton come in a span of just 16 Aces games. By the eighth game, matters might not require a referee as much as a United Nations peace-keeping crew.

On the other hand, the Aces, who finished last regular season with 10 straight road games, will finish next regular season on home ice for just the third time in a dozen ECHL seasons, so there's that. Of course, they do have 10 straight roadies before that regular season-closing, three-game home set against the Ontario Reign, so there's that too.

The ECHL's Board of Governors approved realignment last week in Las Vegas -- insert your own joke here -- in the interest of a "more equitable opportunity for all teams to qualify for a playoff position.''

We get that. The ECHL has long featured far more teams in the Eastern Conference than Western Conference, which meant far more Eastern teams did not make the Kelly Cup playoffs. The breakdown at the start of last season was 13 teams in the East and nine in the West, and the latter became eight when the San Francisco Bulls died of financial failure in midseason. So, all eight teams in the West made the playoffs while only eight of 13 teams in the East made the playoffs. You can understand why some folks in the East were not pleased.

Under realignment, next season there will be 10 teams in the East -- five teams each in the North and South divisions. There will be 11 teams in the West -- six, including the Aces, in the Pacific Division, and five in the Midwest Division. The top four teams in each of the four divisions will qualify for the playoffs, which will start with divisional semifinals, then proceed to divisional finals, conference finals and the Kelly Cup Finals.

Thus, in the West, where everyone made the playoffs this spring -- thanks, Bulls! -- and only one team did not qualify for the postseason in each of the six seasons before that, three teams next spring will experience the indignity of packing up gear at regular season's end. No longer will a certain rallying cry -- "We Weren't Quite The Lousiest Team In Our Conference!'' -- be good enough to qualify for the playoffs.

Not that the Aces likely have any worries on that front. You might recall they won the Kelly Cup earlier this month for the third time in franchise history. Or that they have won the Brabham Cup as regular-season champions four straight times. Or that only once in 11 previous seasons in the ECHL have they failed to advance to the second round of the playoffs.

When the Aces open the 2014-15 season at home, Oct. 17, against Ontario, they will have banners aplenty to unfurl -- new additions as Mountain Division champs, Brabham Cup champs, Western Conference regular-season champs, Western Conference playoff champs and Kelly Cup champs. No doubt returning players will also receive their Kelly Cup rings.

And then the past is behind them, and another grinding schedule awaits. The Aces' 72 regular-season games are against just six opponents -- 14 games against Stockton, 12 each against Bakersfield, Idaho, Ontario and Colorado, and 10 against Utah.

But, alas, not a single showdown with the Indy Fuel.

This column is the opinion of Daily News reporter Doyle Woody. Find his blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.