Jim Neveau, Senior NHL Correspondent
Back in December, the NHL’s Board of Governors voted 26-4 to realign the league for next season. The move was made because Winnipeg was stuck in the Eastern Conference despite moving from Atlanta before the season, and it also put teams like Washington and Pittsburgh in the same conference. It also fundamentally changed the playoff system would work, leaving open the possibility of two Western teams or Eastern teams to play in the Stanley Cup Finals. It wasn’t universally loved, but with tenets such as having every team travel to all 29 other NHL cities in a given season, there was plenty to love about it as well.
That notion all came crashing down on Friday night when it was revealed that the NHL’s Players Association had refused to provide its consent for the plan, ensuring that next season will see the same misshapen alignment that this season has had. The move, which met with approval from players like Patrik Elias of the New Jersey Devils, was met with a great deal of anger from the part of the league. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly spoke candidly after the announcement was made:
“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. 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.”
Speculation has been swirling as to why the players would veto the plan, but Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo! Sports probably said it best when he said “they felt realignment was inconsiderate and unfair 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.”
If that is truly the mindset of the players, and all indications are that it is, then the NHLPA is playing a dangerous game of chicken as it heads toward its first collective bargaining agreement negotiations since the lockout that cancelled the 2004-05 season. The notion that they are ready to play hardball now, reinforced by the hiring of Donald Fehr to be their point man in negotiations, doesn’t exactly lead to fans having much confidence that a deal can get done without another stoppage being part of the package.
That fear among fans is exacerbated by the fact that there are some serious issues in the CBA that are going to have to be addressed, and realignment isn’t exactly the most hotly contested battleground amongst them. The biggest one is going to be what to do with the escrow system, which is based on league revenues and has been a hot button issue for many guys since the new CBA was ratified. In addition, the league is going to want to slash how much of the revenue pie the players share, since the CBA is giving the players 57 percent of revenues. If you will recall, the NBA and its players battled over this exact thing during their recent lockout, and ended up agreeing to a 50-50 split. If you think for a second that Fehr and the players will agree to such a drastic cut, then you’re more optimistic than most observers.
All of this being said, it’s pretty apparent that the player’s association is wanting to play hardball, and they have no intention of taking a passive stance as owners ram through a bunch of significant changes. Despite the idea of another lockout being incredibly unsavory to fans of the game, the players are looking more to protect what’s theirs, and even though they have to do that in the face of opposition that is surely ready to get back some ground now that the league is generating more revenue, there still has to be some balance to that approach. Going into the negotiations ready to disagree on everything is a surefire way to get games cancelled, and that is not what the league needs as it has a new TV contract in place and a prominent spot on the revamped NBC Sports Network.
All in all, this posturing on both sides with the expiration date of the CBA still some months away does not bode well for the fans of the league, and that is a shame. After nearly killing the NHL the first time around with a lockout, the realization that the players and owners might be willing to play Russian Roulette again is saddening and contemptible. Hopefully this is only a blip on the radar with fans laughing about it when a new CBA gets agreed upon before a lockout, but I wouldn’t count on it.