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The Player: Why NHL players rejected realignment, and why the backlash was worth it

The Player
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(The Player is an active member of a National Hockey League team. Anonymous by choice, he will provide insights about life in hockey on occasion throughout the season.)

"It is unfortunate that the NHLPA has unreasonably refused to support a Plan that an overwhelming majority of our Clubs voted to support, and that has received such widespread support from our fans and other members of the hockey community, including players."

That was Bill Daly, Gary Bettman's right hand man at the NHL and the "Plan" to which the Deputy Commissioner referred was, of course, realignment. The League had given the Players Association a deadline of Jan. 3 to either consent to the Plan or to reject it.

As everyone now knows, the PA shot it down.

In December, the League's Board of Governors approved a realignment proposal that would create four new "conferences." The two eastern-based conferences would each consist of 7 teams while the western and central-based conferences would be home to 8 teams.

Along with the re-shuffling of the teams, there were to be two major changes taking place next season. The first concerned qualification for the playoffs. The proposal called for the top four teams in each of the new conferences to make the playoffs.

The second had to do with scheduling. In a departure from the current format, each team would play home and home with every other team in the league outside of their own conference. The balance of their schedule would be made up of intra-conference games.

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The initial reaction from around the hockey world seemed to be positive. With the exception of the two Florida teams joining the current Northeast Division, the conferences made sense geographically. In simple terms, there were to be two Eastern conferences, one Central time-zone conference (plus Detroit and Columbus,) and one conference of Mountain and Pacific time-zone teams.

The fans, and probably some players, liked the idea that each team would visit every road city at least once.

The playoff format promised to intensify some rivalries by setting up intra-conference match-ups in the first two rounds. Bettman was all smiles at the press conference when he announced the proposal and word leaked out that it had been approved by the Board of Governors by a vote of 26-4.

One could only assume, as I did, that a majority of the clubs liked the idea and that at least some of the teams with the biggest concerns going into the meeting (Detroit, Columbus, Dallas, Minnesota and Winnipeg) were satisfied.

But there was no mention of, and relatively little media focus on how much more difficult it would be to make the playoffs for a team in an eight-team conference versus a team in a seven-team conference. And with regard to any potential increase in travel, League officials made some vague statements about how they were confident the schedule could be made to be more efficient.

At this point the proposal was put to the NHLPA. We could either say "yes" or "no" but we could not, according to the CBA, "unreasonably" withhold our consent. As a group the players had two main concerns — the competitive disadvantage of the teams in the eight-team conferences, and the effect that the new schedule would have on travel.

With that in mind we set out to have some questions answered by the League office.

Would they be willing to discuss any changes to the playoff format? It's pretty obvious that the "Plan" wouldn't be fair for the Eastern and Central teams. It wouldn't be fair to those players. Nor would it be fair, for that matter, to the fans of those teams, nor to the owners of those teams (who would have a 7-percent less chance of cashing in on playoff revenue each season).

Would Bettman and the owners be willing to consider some sort of wild card scenario to make the chances of playoff qualification more equitable for all the teams?

Gary's answer was clear. He was not willing to discuss different recommendations because he was not interested in our opinions. This was not a negotiation. All he wanted from the union was a yes or a no.

How would the new schedule effect player travel? Logic suggests that the travel would get a little tougher with every Western Conference team visiting every Eastern Conference city and vice versa.

Personally, I was optimistic that the NHL had thought this through, and could make good on its promise to make the schedule more efficient. Gone would be the days of an East Coast team flying out to California for two games against the Ducks and Kings, only to return later in the season to play the Sharks and the Stars. Not to mention a third trip out west to swing through Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. Not to mention those Western teams coming East.

Players around the league shake their heads at this type of thing every year.

Maybe, we thought, the new travel schedule wouldn't be that bad if we could have fewer, longer, better organized road trips. I assumed, also, that the travel burden would be eased on teams such as the Wild, the Red Wings, the Jets and the Stars.

After all, wasn't that what prompted the realignment discussion to begin with?

We asked the NHL for their projections so we could make an informed decision. How about a mock schedule; would that be too much to ask?

The information did not flow freely and, in the end, was judged by the PA to be woefully inadequate. In our collective opinion, the League either doesn't actually know for certain how travel would be affected, or they do know and they just don't want to tell us.

I really believe that a lot of players were initially excited about the prospect of realignment. Bill Daly was right when we said that the idea received "widespread support" from fans and players alike.

From the player's perspective, however, support for this plan waned as the process played out.

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Let me be clear — the players are not fundamentally opposed to realignment. But we have to do our due diligence. If realignment is a good idea, then tell us why it's a good idea (and show us facts). At the very least we have to know what we're agreeing to. If travel is going to be worse, we should know that heading in.

And if it's going to be worse, why are we doing it? Maybe the NHL has research that shows that Hockey Related Revenues would grow under the new format. That could be a tradeoff the players might be willing to make in exchange for a more grueling schedule.

If the NHL has such projections, we haven't seen them.

Personally I think that the inequity in the opportunity to make the playoffs is an issue that might not be solved so easily. I'm surprised that this seems to concern the players so much more than the owners, GMs, and fans of those teams that would be put at a disadvantage. In the end, the players felt they had no choice but to withhold their consent.

Immediately following the NHLPA's decision the media began their hand-wringing. They interpreted our response as a shot across the bow in the upcoming CBA negotiations. A lot of people won't believe this but I don't see it that way. This is an issue unto itself.

As I said, I think a lot of players wanted to be excited about realignment, but did the league really expect us to agree to something like that without providing us with the basic information to make a decision?

Maybe they did. Or maybe Gary Bettman never liked the plan to begin with and was intentionally un-cooperative.

Bill Daly sounded pretty miffed when we gave the League our answer:

"We believe the Union acted unreasonably in violation of the League's rights. We intend to evaluate all of our legal options, and to pursue adequate remedies, as appropriate."

To my knowledge, so far we've heard nothing on this front. Maybe it's just me, but I find it strange that despite the rhetoric the NHL seems to have simply shelved their realignment proposal. No lawsuit, no further discussions, nothing.

No fight, Gary? That's not like you. Unless, as I said, it's not that important to him either way, and the worst case scenario is that the PA would take a PR hit. Maybe.

Initially there was some backlash when our decision became public, but not as much as I anticipated. I think a lot of media and fans understood where we were coming from on this issue. I also think that the players, especially the ones who lived through the 2004 lockout, have learned to worry less about the PR battle because it's a war we probably cannot win.

Chances are everyone involved will need to have some thick skin before the puck is dropped on the 2012-13 season.

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