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NHL, NHLPA exchange first shots of looming war

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports
NHL, NHLPA exchange first shots of looming war
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With Donald Fehr leading the way, the NHLPA is taking a more aggressive approach in dealings with the …

Unreasonably. That's the word that stuck out in the NHL's shocking announcement Friday night, and that's the word that portends trouble between the league and the NHL Players' Association ahead of their first labor negotiation since 2004-05 – which, you know, nuked an entire season.

The NHL announced that it is delaying the implementation of its plan to realign into four conferences and balance the schedule. Why? Because, said deputy commissioner Bill Daly in a statement, the NHLPA has "unreasonably refused to approve" the plan. That's why.

"We believe the union acted unreasonably in violation of the league's rights," Daly said later in the statement, using the word a second time. "We intend to evaluate all of our available legal options and to pursue adequate remedies, as appropriate."

This is not really about realignment. This is about power, procedure and posturing, and this was the first shot of the larger war – a war fans can only hope won't include yet another nuclear winter without hockey.

Rewind to the NHL board of governors meeting Dec. 5. After the clubs voted to approve the realignment plan – masterminded by commissioner Gary Bettman himself, by the way – union consent seemed like a formality. It was portrayed, frankly, as almost insignificant.

Realignment, Daly said Dec. 6, is "something traditionally we've never discussed with the union. But this would be along the lines of a rule change that could be interpreted as a change of the terms and conditions of employment, and for that, we need to go to the players' association. They need to consent or not, but they can't withhold their consent unreasonably."

In other words, the owners have always held the power on issues like this. The players have rights under the collective bargaining agreement, but because the CBA spells out that they can't withhold their consent unreasonably, those rights amount to a little input and a rubber stamp.

Daly didn't seem concerned.

"We want to do this cooperatively with the players' association," he said then. "I don't anticipate there's going to be any issues."

He said he hoped the matter would be settled "in the next couple weeks."

Well, it wasn't settled at all, and now we face the prospect of elite lawyers arguing about, essentially, who is being more unreasonable. You can see where this is heading, and it's nowhere good from the fans' perspective, not when those lawyers are going to be negotiating, among other things, how to split the revenues of a $3 billion business. The players receive 57 percent right now; the owners are going to want that around 50.

How are they going to agree on a new CBA when they can't agree on how to do things under the current CBA?

Two things to remember:

One, the 2004-05 lockout crushed the NHLPA. The players accepted a salary cap for the first time, most notably, and their union descended into dysfunction afterward. The victorious owners were able to do what they wanted on issues large and small almost uncontested, at least with little resistance.

Two, the NHLPA hired Donald Fehr last year. Fehr, the longtime leader of the Major League Baseball Players Association, took the job mainly because he relished the challenge of rebuilding the organization. He went back to the very basics – teaching the players how a union is supposed to work. He had to do that before he could teach them how to stand up for themselves.

Fehr set the tone in an interview with Yahoo! Sports in September, saying: "The players made an awful lot of concessions in the last agreement. It's pretty hard to see them being willing to do that again."

This is Union 101. Every issue is important, and if the players can't make their voices heard when the owners decide to realign the league, how will they make them heard when the owners want to shrink their piece of the pie?

The realignment issue is instructional – for the hockey world, as we watch how the league's longtime leaders and the union's new leaders feel each other out before the big fight; and for the players specifically, as they watch how Fehr operates.

[ Related: NHLPA blocks league's realignment plan ]

Already we have differing versions of events, slick legal language and PR maneuvering. The league has seized the opportunity to paint the union as the bad guy, but that might backfire in a significant way: The players now see that Fehr can effect change simply by refusing to play along, and that might embolden them when the going gets much tougher.

In his statement Friday night, Daly noted that "an overwhelming majority" of teams voted for the realignment plan and that it received "widespread support from our fans and other members of the hockey community, including players."

That is true. The plan passed by a reported margin of 26-4. It did receive widespread support. I liked it. I know a lot of players who liked it, especially those on teams that are at a disadvantage under the current system.

But that glosses over the fact that this was a contentious issue. As the governors entered the room Dec. 5, no one knew how the votes would go. When they exited, there was surprise that the margin was so lopsided, and there was thought that some teams just went along with the crowd when it was clear Bettman had enough votes.

In his statement Friday night, Fehr said the players had two main concerns: the possibility travel would be worse, and the disparity in the odds of making the playoffs between two seven- and two eight-team divisions.

These are legitimate concerns. Many Eastern teams are reluctant to travel more to visit every other city in the league. That's why many doubted this plan would actually pass and why Bettman had to lobby behind the scenes. As for the disparity in the odds of making the playoffs between the seven- and eight-team divisions, I was amazed it wasn't more of an issue.

"You have a seven percent less chance of making the playoffs if they have eight teams in your division, but that's just the way it is," St. Louis Blues president John Davidson said Dec. 6. "You've got to deal with that. It's for the greater good."

On Dec. 6, when he portrayed union consent as no big deal, Daly said the league had received a letter from the union a month before and had invited the players' participation in the process. He said the league had shared its two main realignment proposals before the vote. He said it had invited the players to make their own proposals, and "they didn't do that."

But wait. Fehr didn't mention any of that in his statement Friday night. He started with "the evening of Dec. 5," when the board voted for the plan. He said only that the union had discussions with the league and players afterward. He said the union suggested reaching an agreement on scheduling, "but the league did not want to enter into such a dialogue," and the union suggested discussing ways to eliminate the disparity in playoff odds, "but the league was not willing to do so."

[ Related: Why the NHLPA rejected realignment plan ]

So, the union didn't want to talk before the vote and the league didn't want to talk after it? How much of an effort did the league really make to get meaningful input from the union before the vote, and how much did the players really press the issue before the owners made a public commitment to this plan?

This is the first shot, but who really fired it?

The league blames the union. Daly said league officials have spent "the better part of four weeks attempting to satisfy the NHLPA's purported concerns with the plan with no success," and so they are "already late beginning the process of preparing next season's schedule," and so they have "no choice but to abandon our intention" to implement the realignment plan.

Really? The league can't prepare two schedules? This is the NHL, which waited until May 31 last year to announce it was moving a team from Atlanta to Winnipeg and might have another team on the move this year in the Phoenix Coyotes.

The union blames the league. Fehr noted that it was the league that set a deadline for Jan. 6 for the union to consent and it was the league that had not addressed the players' questions about travel and concerns about playoff odds. He said the union continues "to be ready and willing to have further discussions."

Really? The union is ready and willing to talk? This is the NHLPA, which has been waiting to enter into labor negotiations until after the All-Star Game while the league had been ready and willing for some time. Fehr has been teaching, researching and preparing – and possibly stalling – for strategic reasons. The league has been frustrated.

In the end, you have a league that is used to getting its way, and you have a union that is empowered under a new leader, signaling that it's not going to take it anymore and insisting that it has a respected presence at the table.

It would be nice to think that the NHL and NHLPA could find common ground smoothly and reach a labor agreement without a work stoppage – as Fehr's former colleagues in baseball did back in November, as the NFL and NBA recently failed to do. But there is only one way to believe that will happen at this point.

Unreasonably.

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