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Realignment squabble could signal future labor strife

By Dan Di Sciullo
NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - When the NHL's Board of Governors approved the NHL's drastic plan for realignment in early December, announcement of the news was usually coupled with the phrase "pending approval from the National Hockey League Players Association."

At the time, nobody seemed overly concerned that the NHLPA would actually shoot down the four-conference plan proposed by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and approved by the owners, but that's exactly what happened on Friday.

Citing concerns about "onerous travel" and the "disparity in chances of making the playoffs between the smaller and larger divisions," NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr (yes, that Donald Fehr) announced the union's decision to nix the realignment plan.

Bettman and the owners' plan was built around four conferences -- two with eight teams and two with seven -- and it was designed to place clubs into groups based on time zones. That would seem to take care of travel concerns, but the NHLPA wanted a mock schedule to determine what a season under the new alignment would actually look like. The players' union never received that draft schedule from the NHL, which instead delivered travel formulas and mileage stats to the NHLPA.

While the fight over travel stats seems petty on the NHLPA's part, the union does have a legitimate argument with its concerns about making the playoffs. From the time the realignment plan was announced, the fact that two divisions have eight teams fighting for four playoff spots and the other two have just seven clubs battling for the same number of postseason berths seemed unfair to the larger conferences.

Yet, to focus on the two debates above as the reason the league will not be realigned for 2012-13 would be missing the point. In reality, there is a whole lot of red herring being force fed to the public by both the NHL and the NHLPA.

What's really going on here is a precursor to the pending battle over the league's next Collective Bargaining Agreement. The current CBA is set to expire on Sept. 15, 2012 and neither side wants to blink first.
In reality, there is a whole lot of red herring being force fed to the public by both the NHL and the NHLPA.

After all, the NHL heavily marketed its realignment plan, which was devised without the consent of the players' union, and basically dared the NHLPA to veto it. Bettman and the owners figured it was a win-win for them; either they get the realignment they want, or the NHLPA shoots it down and takes a PR hit among the league's fan base.

Fehr and the NHLPA chose the latter path and NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly chastised the players in the league's statement regarding the rejection.

"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."

Doesn't seem like the NHL is ready to play nice, does it? But, from what we know about Fehr, his side isn't likely to cower either.

The owners were considered the winners of the last CBA battle after successfully getting the salary-cap system they wanted, but it took a lockout and the lost 2004-05 season to get it. Considering the fact that NHL players are still making millions, the only real losers in the last CBA fight were fans of NHL hockey.

It still seems unthinkable that the league and the NHLPA could be walking down a road to another work stoppage in 2012-13, but with Fehr leading the players' union there is reason to be, well, scared.

Fehr, of course, was the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association when baseball went through its infamous strike that lasted from 1994-1995. When he stepped down as head of the MLBPA and took the same post on the NHL side in December 2010, many folks believed -- unreasonably, or not -- that Fehr would inevitably help cause another hockey work stoppage.

That may not be accurate or fair, but after his involvement with the MLB strike of '94-95, Fehr has become known by the public as a staunch defender of greed among professional athletes. In reality, he is not some super villain, but simply the best at what he does: fighting for the players' stake in multi- billion dollar industries like professional baseball and hockey.

Fehr and Bettman have yet to meet about the CBA, but they are expected to have their first encounter sometime after this month's All-Star Game in Ottawa. Whenever they do meet, it's a safe bet that the conversation will be lacking in small talk.

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