Last week, the NHLPA rejected a proposal for the realignment of the NHL, which was set to take effect in the 2012-13 season. On December 5, 2011, the NHL presented a radical realignment proposal, which would have changed many aspects of how the hockey season played out. Under the proposed realignment, there would be unbalanced conferences, with two conferences of seven teams and two conferences of eight teams. Every team in the NHL would play a home-and-home against the other. The playoffs would start within the conferences, with the top four teams playing one another in divisional playoff series. The NHLPA asserted that the realignment affects the terms and conditions of a player's employment, and that under the CBA, the NHL had to obtain the NHLPA's approval of the plan before it could be implemented. (The NHL later stated that it does not need NHLPA approval to realign the league). The NHL then gave the NHLPA a 30-day deadline to approve the plan, allegedly so that the necessary work to implement it could be done in time for next season.
On January 6, new NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr released a statement regarding the players' position on the NHL's realignment proposal. He stated that over the course of several meetings with the league he brought up two substantial player concerns: increased travel, and the disparity of chances of making the playoffs between the larger and smaller conferences. "The travel estimation data we received from the league indicates that many of the current Pacific and Central teams, that have demanding travels schedules under the current format, could see their travel becoming 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 NHLPA felt the players' concerns had not been properly addressed and that they had not been given enough information to make an informed decision as to the merits of the realignment. As such, they declined to consent to the proposal.
The NHL responded with a statement through their representative, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. ""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 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, the NHL will most likely maintain its current alignment and playoff format for the 2012-13 season.
As a result of the NHLPA's denial, the NHL can take the NHLPA to arbitration, and Daly said that they have not ruled out that course of action. However, Daly made a very interesting point in saying,"We could have unilaterally implemented this. And probably could have done so in a way that would have insulated it for next year because I'm not sure they could have gotten an arbitration award in time to reverse our schedule. But we chose not to do that, and one of the reasons we chose not to do that is because we don't want to be overly confrontation with the players association." (Yes, you in fact read that last sentence correctly).
There is clearly a lot of game playing and strategic positioning involved with how each side is approaching the realignment conflict. It appears that the NHL tried to strong-arm their version of realignment through before this upcoming round of CBA negotiations, with the 30-day consent deadline and apparent lack of responsiveness to additional requests for information. The players called out the league for not involving them in the process and it looks like realignment could turn out to be another part of this summer's negotiations. Realigning the NHL is a far-reaching matter involving a number of uncertainties, most notably the future location of the Phoenix Coyotes. Though it is clear that some sort of realignment is necessary, how it is actually undertaken is a matter that should involve both the players and league, and be carefully considered before implementing.
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