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  • Hard to fault NHLPA calling NHL's bluff Print
    Written by Frank Seravalli   
    Wednesday, 11 January 2012 09:00

    The NHL's collective bargaining agreement expires in nine months. The haggling over realignment figures to be the first of many disagreements played out in the spin cycle between now and then as the league and its players attempts to avoid a third lockout.

    Frank SeravelliWith the NHL and NHL Players Association set to commence negotiations around the All-Star break on a new collective bargaining agreement that expires on Sept. 15, witness last weekend's failed realignment proposal as the Civil War equivalent of the Battle at Fort Sumter.

    The NHLPA, of course, failed to provide consent last Friday for the league's radical realignment plan.

    Since the realignment was voted and approved, 27-3, by the NHL's Board of Governors on Dec. 5, the NHL set a firm January date and NHLPA called their bluff. The result? The first of many skirmishes between now and September.

    I can clearly see this argument from both sides.

    The NHL needed to proceed with its schedule-making process - which, according to deputy commissioner Bill Daly - is a lengthy ordeal.

    The NHLPA was not given a seat at the realignment negotiating table and wanted a say. Under new head honcho Donald Fehr, the same man at the helm for two work stoppages in Major League Baseball, did you really think that the NHLPA was going to roll over and play nice for no reason?

    "It's just something that we had to do," one NHLPA member in the Philadelphia Flyers dressing room said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to publicly speak about the subject matter. "The issues were really beside the point."

    Interestingly, it was Daly - who as a guest on our own Hockey Unfiltered show on XM Home Ice - said that the NHL offered the olive branch by not forcefully pushing through the new realignment procedures for next season with or without consent.

    "We could have unilaterally implemented this," Daly said as guest of HPT's Todd Lewis. "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 confrontational with the players association."

    The NHLPA contests the new realignment plan on two fronts: (1) an unknown travel impact on teams, including the possibility of increased time in the air, longer road trips, more back-to-back games and border crossings and (2) an unbalanced conference format, which affords teams in some divisions a 15-percent better chance to make the playoffs.

    And that's where I draw a line in the sand with the NHLPA's lack of consent. It's all spin.

    As Daly noted on Hockey Unfiltered, the NHLPA balked because the league did not provide them with a theoretical travel format for teams. That's because it is impossible to do.

    As one of the sport's traveling beat writers, I've already tried to figure this out on my own. That's right. Always thinking about myself. But I soon learned that I could never estimate any increase in travel.

    How do I know if the open dates at arenas will allow an efficient swing through Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton as I work my way back East? Or, would one new West Coast trip include stops in San Jose, then Colorado, then Vancouver before coming home?

    "I don't think there was anything more we could have provided," Daly said, exhausted. "They wanted a mock schedule, one that we weren't in a position to  create or even have the ability to create."

    The overall travel impact of the new realignment setup was known from the start: a moderate increase for teams based on the coasts and a great improvement for the teams that make up the central corridor of the continent. There were no surprises.

    The next balk by the NHLPA was the unbalanced playoff format, with four out of seven teams qualifying for the playoffs in two conferences and only four out of eight teams making the cut in two other conferences. This was actually not an unprecedented move by the league, it's a setup something similar to one that has been used before.

    The NHLPA, always most focused on money for its players, doesn't have much ground to stand on in this argument. Sixteen teams are still making the playoffs, the same as in the current alignment. The playoff shares are still divided by the same number of players in the end.

    And it's not as if teams in the West now are barking when a team in the East qualifies for the playoffs with a lesser record.

    "Those are the rules of the game," Daly said. "Everybody knows what the rules are when you engage. And you live with the consequences."

    Instead, the NHLPA has decided to send the Board of Governors back to the drawing board, with Winnipeg likely sticking in the asinine Southeast division for at least one more season.

    They've shot down an agreement that was almost universally presented as a positive for the entire league, with fanbases in Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, and Nashville benefitting some more than others.

    Take, for example, the Flyers.

    "We weren't thrilled about the marginally increased travel," Flyers chairman Ed Snider told Hockey Primetime. "But we thought it was the right thing to do for our league partners."

    If you're Fehr, this was a free opportunity to send a poignant reminder to the NHL brass that the NHLPA is ready to play hardball in the upcoming negotiations - even if the current argument is base-less.

    As Daly noted, the new realignment plan does present an obvious change in working conditions for NHL players. But the NHLPA is not denying consent in good barganing faith. I get it. And if I were Fehr, I would have done the same thing.

    And if Daly was Fehr, he probably would have, too.

    "We're big boys," Daly said. "We knew going in at time of board meeting that the union would use this as chip in collective bargaining."

    Frank Seravalli covers the Flyers for the Philadelphia Daily News. On Twitter: @DNFlyers

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    Last Updated on Wednesday, 11 January 2012 01:05