Bettman pulled strings in realignment vote

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – When Brian Burke worked for the NHL in the 1990s, there was an inside joke among league employees when an issue was about to come to a vote.

"People would say, 'How do you think this is going to go?' " Burke recalled. "We got a good laugh out of that, because we already knew how it was going to go most of the time."

They knew it was going to go Gary Bettman's way most of the time, because they knew the commissioner would lay the groundwork well in advance. He wouldn't bring an issue to a vote unless he had the votes on his side.

It was no different Monday when the NHL's board of governors gathered at a posh Pebble Beach golf resort and authorized Bettman to realign the league into four conferences and balance the schedule, pending input from the NHL Players' Association.

There will be two seven-team conferences and two eight-team conferences based on time zones. Every team will play every other home and away at least once every season. The first two rounds of the playoffs will be intraconference clashes.

This was a complex, contentious issue and it required a two-thirds vote to settle. Every team had its own self-interest, and everyone had his own opinion. Some owners differed from their general managers. Few felt confident enough to make a prediction as the league's power brokers entered a ballroom for their meeting.

But Burke – now the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who did not support the four-conference plan personally – said he was pretty sure the radical restructuring was going to pass. And not only did it pass, it passed by a 26-4 vote after only about an hour of discussion.

"It's typical – typical Gary Bettman," Burke said with a smile. "It's like a Chicago election in the '30s, you know? He's got a pretty good idea of which way it's going – not that it's fixed, but that he's got a pretty good sense of where the votes are going to come."

[ Related: NHL approves 4-conference realignment ]

Bettman played down his role. He said the NHL changed the format only because the Atlanta Thrashers became the Winnipeg Jets, and he insisted he had nothing against the existing system – partly because he "invented it" in 1993. He said he didn't take a headcount coming into the meeting, and he insisted he simply laid out the pros and cons of the two leading proposals and let the owners decide for themselves.

"We weren't selling, and we weren't lobbying," Bettman said. "We were informing, because this was really one where I wanted the will of the board to speak."

What Bettman failed to mention is that he came up with the plan that passed Monday, too, and he had been "informing" real hard before the meeting. This is his job. The owners pay him millions of dollars to lead the league, and the best leaders solve problems and let their followers feel like it was their idea – especially when they have so much invested in the outcome.

"He's the guy that came up with the plan," said Jimmy Devellano, senior vice president of the Detroit Red Wings. "That was his plan. He put it all together because, you know, a lot of people had issues."

Devellano said he spoke to Bettman about realignment almost every week for the last two months – and the Wings were one of the teams pushing for change. Bettman, no doubt, also had many conversations with clubs who like things just the way they are.

"There was a lot of work done behind the scenes," Devellano said. "You can't go to a meeting where there are 30 people and try to get two-thirds of the people to vote without doing things first, one-on-one, behind the scenes. It's the smart thing to do. It's the sensible thing to do. So a lot of work was done one-on-one with the 30 owners."

Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch has long wanted to move to the Eastern Conference, because as a Western Conference team in the Eastern Time zone, the Wings have logged many miles traveling and started many games too late for their local TV audience. He said publicly that Bettman had promised him the Red Wings would move East if the opportunity ever arose. And the opportunity arose when the Thrashers became the Jets.

But Bettman couldn't make that promise to Ilitch – realignment is up to the owners, not him – and other teams had their own problems.

The Columbus Blue Jackets are another Eastern-Time-zone team in the West. The Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars are the only Central-Time-zone teams in their divisions. In general, the West had a beef with the East because the travel was worse, and the imbalanced schedule kept everybody from playing in every building every season.

Bettman tried to find a solution that would solve the most problems, knowing a perfect solution was impossible.

"This is not a subject that everybody is going to get their first choice on," Bettman said, "and what you try to do is come up with something that everybody can live with, get comfortable with and understands the value of, because if you ask 30 clubs, you would probably get 30 different solutions. That's what makes this a difficult process, at worst."

The last time the board of governors met was Sept. 20. The East wasn't interested in a four-conference format, and it seemed unlikely to pass because only 11 "no" votes could block it. The easier, simpler solution was to move Winnipeg to the West and either Columbus or Detroit to the East.

"The consensus out of that meeting was less change is better," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. "But I think a lot of people gave it some more thought."

Bettman said league officials started receiving "unsolicited feedback" from clubs. Bettman did plenty of politicking, too. He smoothed out some wrinkles – most notably reuniting the rival Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers in the same conference so they wouldn't be split up against their wishes. He didn't necessarily twist arms, but he found a way to get the vast majority to agree.

"He's too smart to have to push people into this conclusion, because there's no reason to," Daly said. "They ultimately got there themselves."

By the time the board of governors gathered again, there wasn't all that much left to discuss. Only about a dozen teams commented after Bettman made his presentation of the pros and cons.

"That may have short-circuited people's desires to say things," Bettman said, "because in terms of what was good and what was bad, it was kind of laid out there for everybody."

[ Related: The biggest lingering issues of realignment ]

No, it's not perfect. But again, nothing would have been, and the pros outweigh the cons. Devellano called it a "dream come true" even for the Wings, who originally wanted to move to the East.

The conferences will be based on time zones, so teams currently in the Western Conference will travel less and play more road games at a reasonable hour for their fans. The schedule will be balanced, so teams currently in the Eastern Conference will travel more – evening out the burden – and each team will play in each city each season. (Every team will play home-and-away against every team outside its conference. Within seven-team conferences, teams will play each other three times at home, three times away. Within eight-team conferences, teams will play each other five or six times on a rotating basis.)

The first two rounds of the playoffs will be within the conferences, so the travel will be similar for everyone and regional rivalries will be enhanced. Bettman said the general managers would discuss the third round at their meetings in the spring and he would let them decide how to handle it.

This setup also accounts for the uncertain future of the Phoenix Coyotes. The NHL, which bought the team out of bankruptcy, continues to talk to two prospective buyers. If no deal is reached and the Coyotes relocate – to, say, Quebec City, where there is an ownership group and a new arena planned – one conference will just go from eight teams to seven, another vice versa.

"There is flexibility in this format, which is perhaps one of the reasons people were comfortable," Bettman said. "We're not planning on any moves. We don't want any moves. But if we find ourselves confronted with one, the way it's set up gives us a little bit more flexibility."

The cons?

For teams currently in the East, it means more travel. But the league's schedule-makers think they can be more efficient with every team playing every non-conference opponent home and away.

"If you're going out to play San Jose, you could pick up St. Louis on the way or pick up Nashville on the way," Burke said. "Their feeling is they can do this without putting a real burden on the teams from a travel standpoint. My concern is the wear and tear on the players – not the cost of the travel, but the wear and tear. The league is comfortable that they can handle that."

Teams in seven-team conferences have less competition for playoff spots than teams in eight-team conferences – a concern raised by the NHLPA. But the one or two teams at the bottom of the standings don't really make a difference to the top four or five.

A team in one conference could miss the playoffs with more points than a playoff-bound team in another conference, but that happens already between East and West, and the focus will be on intra-conference competition. With this schedule matrix, teams will have the same schedule – or virtually the same schedule – as their competitors for playoff spots.

"Two teams that get screwed – but only two of the 30 – are the Florida teams," said one NHL executive, "because they have to go up to Canada and play all those Canadian teams and they've got the border crossings, which is a complete pain in the ass."

Even that isn't so bad, though. Florida and Tampa Bay will be stuck flying up to Boston, Buffalo, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto three times each. But when the Panthers and Lightning are home, it should be a benefit because snowbirds will buy tickets.

"When it gets right down to it, I mean, we know this was a very contentious issue, and again, you first start thinking about, 'What's in it for me?' " Nashville Predators GM David Poile said. "But at the end of the day, everybody correctly gave Gary the direction in terms of what was right for the whole league."

And they did it after Bettman helped lead them in that direction.

"I think it's a real good step today," Poile said. "I think it's good for almost everybody in the league – maybe not everybody. But I think we did the right thing."

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