What we didn't know about the NHL's radical realignment plan, approved by the NHL Board of Governors last month and affecting everything from conference sizes to playoff format: That the National Hockey League Players' Association would refuse to provide its consent, and kill the plan for 2012-13.
Which, in fact, the NHLPA did on Friday. No four unbalanced conferences. No divisional playoffs. The Winnipeg Jets remain in the Southeast. The Dallas Stars remain in the Pacific, and so on.
What we really didn't know about the NHL's radical realignment plan, until the NHLPA and executive director Donald Fehr's rejection of it: That it was a grandiose power play against the players, as Gary Bettman pushed Fehr for the first time and Fehr responded with a left hook that made the fight fans gasp.
From the NHL:
The National Hockey League announced today that it will not move forward with implementation of the realignment plan and modified playoff format recently approved by the NHL Board of Governors for the 2012-13 NHL season because the NHLPA has refused to provide its consent.
"It is unfortunate that the NHLPA has unreasonably refused to approve 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," said NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. "We have now spent the better part of four weeks attempting to satisfy the NHLPA's purported concerns with the plan with no success. Because we have already been forced to delay, and as a result are already late in beginning the process of preparing next season's schedule, we have no choice but to abandon our intention to implement the realignment plan and modified playoff format for next season."
"We believe the union acted unreasonably in violation of the league's rights. We intend to evaluate all of our available legal options and to pursue adequate remedies, as appropriate."
As a result of the league's decision today, the NHL will maintain its current alignment and playoff format for the 2012-13 season.
So why did the NHLPA refuse to endorse this plan, besides a clear disregard for the league's rights (OK then)? Simple: They felt realignment was unfair and inconsiderate to the players; they weren't given a chance, in their eyes, to help create it; and it communicated that the NHLPA isn't going to be shoved around now or during the CBA talks.
On Monday, Dec. 5, 2011, the NHL's Board of Governors approved a new four-conference format for the league beginning in 2012-13, with two conferences of seven teams and two conferences of eight teams.
Every team in the NHL would have played home-and-home; the Stanley Cup Playoffs would have started inside each conference, with the top four teams squaring off in divisional playoffs.
According to sources with knowledge of the negotiations, the NHL didn't include the NHLPA in the formation of the realignment plan because there was no mandate in the CBA to do so. So the league created the plan, the Board of Governors passed it and the dare was made: Go ahead, kill off something that the majority of hockey teams, fans and media deemed a positive move for the NHL.
But the league eventually needed the NHLPA's consent. It was never a given despite reports to the contrary. So they sent a letter asking for it, and the NHLPA responded by communicating several concerns they had with the now-passed plan:
• The unbalanced conference format, with two divisions of eight teams and two divisions of seven teams. Combined with the return to a four-team "divisional" playoff format, the players felt there was an unfair advantage to teams in the smaller conferences.
• The NHL trumpeted reduced travel for teams; for example, the Detroit Red Wings would only have to make one long swing to California and to Western Canada each season instead of multiple trips.
What the NHLPA wanted: Specific data on what the schedule would look like under this plan, to better understand duration of road trips, for example. What the NHL provided, according to a source with knowledge of the talks: Mileage charts per teams and other formulas. The NHLPA was not pleased.
• Basically, the NHLPA felt that this realignment plan was created by and for the owners, and not in the best interests of the players. And when they reached out to attempt to reshape the plan to better serve their interests, that input was rejected, according to one source.
The NHLPA and NHL VP Bill Daly had traded letters for the last month, with the PA telling Larry Brooks of the New York Post as early as Dec. 4 that they had problems with the realignment plan. As late as Jan. 6, the NHLPA offered to meet with the NHL to hash out the realignment plan. The meeting never occurred.
Now, the death of realignment for next season — which will anger several fan bases that celebrated easier schedules and more rivalry-friendly conferences under the new plan — has been pinned on the NHLPA. The NHL fires the first cannon in the public-relations war that'll be waged well into next season, as the two sides battle over the CBA.
Perhaps that's why we went from the simple flip/flop of a Central Division team with the Winnipeg Jets to a large-scale reshaping of the NHL. At best, the league would have satisfied a dozen disgruntled owners and excited fans with a new rivalry-based playoff format.
At worst, realignment is delayed for a season and Donald Fehr looks like the Grinch Who Stole The Patrick Division.
The NHL successfully demonized the players back in 2005 during that negotiation, as public pressure increased until the PA crumbled under the weight. (Jeremy Roenick, of course, helped along the cause by telling fans that criticized the players' avarice that "we don't want you to watch hockey.") As the next labor war approaches, this realignment tango has a familiar stench.
Sigh ... realignment was taken from even before we learned the conference names. Then again, it wasn't as if realignment didn't have its drawbacks.
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UPDATE: Donald Fehr and the NHLPA released the following statement:
"On the evening of December 5, 2011, the NHL informed the NHLPA that they proposed to put in place a four-conference format beginning with the 2012-13 season. As realignment affects Players' terms and conditions of employment, the CBA requires the League to obtain the NHLPA's consent before implementation. Over the last month, we have had several discussions with the League and extensive dialogue with Players, most recently on an Executive Board conference call on January 1. Two substantial Player concerns emerged: (1) whether the new structure would result in increased and more onerous travel; and (2) the disparity in chances of making the playoffs between the smaller and larger divisions.
"In order to evaluate the effect on travel of the proposed new structure, we requested a draft or sample 2012-13 schedule, showing travel per team. We were advised it was not possible for the League to do that. We also suggested reaching an agreement on scheduling conditions to somewhat alleviate Player travel concerns (e.g., the scheduling of more back-to-back games, more difficult and lengthier road trips, number of border crossings, etc.), but the League did not want to enter into such a dialogue. The travel estimation data we received from the League indicates that many of the current Pacific and Central teams, that have demanding travel schedules under the current format, could see their travel become even more difficult. On the playoff qualification matter, we suggested discussing ways to eliminate the inherent differences in the proposed realignment, but the League was not willing to do so.
"The League set a deadline of January 6, 2012 for the NHLPA to provide its consent to the NHL's proposal. Players' questions about travel and concerns about the playoff format have not been sufficiently addressed; as such, we are not able to provide our consent to the proposal at this time. We continue to be ready and willing to have further discussions should the League be willing to do so."
UPDATE 2: Bill Daly speaks with Sportsnet about the NHLPA's decision, including why the NHL just doesn't go ahead with the plan since they don't need formal NHLPA approval. (The reason? The don't want to start a labor way before the CBA negotiations.)