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The Strange Case of the Realignment Ruckus

On Friday, the NHLPA soundly rejected the NHL’s proposed scheme to realign the league. If you’ll recall, the NHL plan was to divide the league into four conferences, two with eight teams each and two with seven teams each, like this:

Conference A Conference B Conference C Conference D
Anaheim Chicago Boston Carolina
Calgary Columbus Buffalo New Jersey
Colorado Dallas Florida NY Islanders
Edmonton Detroit Montreal NY Rangers
Los Angeles Minnesota Ottawa Philadelphia
Phoenix Nashville Tampa Pittsburgh
San Jose St. Louis Toronto Washington
Vancouver Winnipeg

The plan was that every team would have one home game and one road game against every team outside their conference, and the remainder of the games would be in-conference. Aside from correcting the weirdness of having Winnipeg in the Southeast Division (which happened this season, you’ll remember, because the schedule had been created before the Jets moved from Atlanta), the NHL claimed that the new system would cut down on travel and make life easier for all teams. The plan was passed by the NHL Board of Governors (owners and/or their representatives) with a 26-4 margin.

The Player’s Association, meanwhile, had some misgivings. The primary ones were the strong suspicion that travel would actually increase for the eastern teams and the fact that the eastern teams, with only 7 teams per conference, would have a stronger chance of making the playoffs than the western teams do. The NHLPA requested further information from the NHL, such as a mock schedule showing what each team’s travel would actually be like. The NHL refused to provide this. The PA, with a lack of information on which to base their decision, therefore voted against the realignment.

When the news of the rejection first broke, the hockey spheres of the internet went crazy. Everyone was calling each other unreasonable and the NHL was threatening legal action against the PA. Another lockout seemed imminent. (The current collective bargaining agreement is only good through this season.)

By Saturday morning, both sides were speaking more calmly and some players, such as Nicklas Lidstrom, remain hopeful that a realignment deal can still be reached for the 2012-13 season. “Things can still be done. They can still talk about it. It’s just a matter of meeting each other and going over the information and looking at the schedule. It would have helped our team, but the PA is looking at the whole 30 teams.” The Wings’ player representative to the PA, Nik Kronwall, says the team would be fine with keeping things the way they are if it takes longer to create a fair realignment. “We’ll just keep going like we always have, so it’s not a major concern for us whatsoever,” Kronwall said. “There’s no doubt we would like our schedule to be a little bit different, with the traveling and all that. In saying that, this is how it’s been for the last however many years and it’s been just fine.”

(George Malik has an excellent listing of player, coach, and GM quotes regarding the realignment issue which can be seen here. Scroll down to Part II of his article.)

The players are adamant that this is not simple posturing so they’ll have a bargaining chip to work with in the upcoming CBA negotiations, and I’m inclined to mostly believe them. I’m sure they’re conscious of the fact that this could be a bargaining chip, but their concerns about travel, travel costs, playoff setup, and most importantly, the NHL’s failure to provide them even a rough sketch of what a typical season schedule would be like, are very real issues.

What I don’t understand is this. If Bettman and the Board of Governors knew that the NHLPA’s approval would be required before realignment could go forward, why in the name of Terry Sawchuk’s Goalie Paddle did they not have PA involvement from the beginning? To me this smacks of power posturing and of Bettman caring more about getting his way than about doing what’s right for the NHL.

The reasonable discourse as of Saturday morning makes me cautiously optimistic that deals for both realignment and the CBA can be reached without the loss of another season.

I just can’t help but worry that in the end the real losers will be the fans.