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NHLPA has valid realignment concerns

NHLPA boss Don Fehr's reputation as a tough negotiator has many hockey observers spooked. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

By Stu Hackel

There is much hand wringing and concern about the NHLPA's non-consent to the NHL's much-publicized, highly touted and radical realignment. A widely held belief is that the union's refusal to agree to the plan was all about the upcoming negotiations on collective bargaining agreement. The current CBA expires in early September and, yes, there are reasons to believe a new one won't be reached easily. Some observers believe the 2012-13 season won't start on time.

But, to my mind, the NHLPA's refusal was less about the upcoming negotiations per se and more about living under the current CBA, which gives the players various rights concerning the conditions of their employment. For longer in its history than not, the NHLPA didn't do much with these rights and rubber-stamped the NHL's proposals or didn't even bother to question them. But by insisting on raising realignment issues that troubled the union, the NHLPA has indicated it's not going to function that way any longer.

For that, you can thank or blame (depending on your orientation) Donald Fehr. The NHLPA's executive director has more experience with issues like working conditions than anyone on either side of the labor-management divide, having begun his association with baseball's players union almost four decades ago. He also has a better handle on how to rally and communicate with the troops -- no easy task -- than any of his predecessors. That's why the NHL players, who had been in chaos since the lockout ended, wanted him to lead them. Because of that chaos, they're likely to play closer attention than they did before.

Some fans are riding along Blame Avenue when it comes to the PA. A readers poll in The Globe and Mail showed that 82 percent of those who responded (around 1,700) as of early Monday afternoon, did not support the players association's stance. The paper's James Mirtle wrote that it was "evidence of just how strong fan support had been for the proposal."

The CBA negotiations, which are scheduled to start around the time of the All-Star Game on January 29, won't likely be smooth in any event and the PA's refusal to play along with Gary Bettman on his realignment plan won't make the commissioner any friendlier to the union's positions. In fact, the league's swift reaction to the PA's lack of consent was to not continue talking, which the PA said it was willing to do, but to pull the plan off the table and play next season under the current alignment, a "my way or the highway" approach that doesn't bode well for the future. Here's the NHL's statement on its position.

"They always said it's a partnership, a two-way street," Jason LaBarbera, the Coyotes' player representative, told Jim Gintonio of The Arizona Republic. "You always have to be open for discussions for everything, and in this instance it was a one-sided kind of deal, and the league felt like they could just go and do what they wanted."

But most of the players who spoke over the weekend on the PA's stance weren't linking the CBA negotiations with realignment. They all said, as did Fehr in his statement, that the union's stance had more to do with the league's reluctance to provide them with the more definitive information they had requested to help them get a more concrete understanding of how realignment would impact them.

There was also a conciliatory tone in the players' collective sentiment, that the plan was generally good and they wanted to move forward with it after working on what they found problematic -- namely the possibility of increased travel and the perception that teams in the two eight-team western conferences would have more difficult paths to the playoffs than the pair of seven-team eastern conferences.

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said in the league's statment "We have now spent the better part of four weeks attempting to satisfy the NHLPA’s purported concerns with the Plan with no success." No doubt that's true, but whatever the league tried didn't gain much traction with the players.

Asked, however, if the rejection of realignment was a sign of trouble ahead in the CBA talks, Maple Leafs player rep David Steckel told The Toronto Star's Bob Mitchell, “Not at all. Any time you’re going to realign, you don’t want to just jump into it....We asked for more information so we can make an informed decision on what we’re getting ourselves into, and for whatever reason (the NHL) couldn’t provide those details to us.”

Matt Cullen of the Minnesota Wild echoed Steckel, telling Ben Goessling of The St. Paul Pioneer Press that the PA's point of view was not a precursor to nasty negotiations. "I think there's that impression, but I don't feel like that's actually the case," Cullen said. "There's going to be realignment. I think it's just a matter of trying to do it right instead of rushing through it. There's a lot of information we don't have, and the league is still learning it, too. To be honest, I don't think it's a big scrap. It just a matter of needing more time.

"The travel, from the limited stuff we got, could be potentially worse for some western teams, including Winnipeg," Cullen added. "Without knowing, and it's late in the game, it's obviously hard to come up with a full schedule on a month's notice. Without knowing what that looked like, it's hard to consent or not consent when the potential is there for worse travel."

Alex Auld, the Senators' player rep, said much the same thing, telling Allen Panzeri of The Ottawa Citizen, “I think we just wanted more discussion, more dialogue, maybe some sample schedules for a few teams, or a league-wide schedule, and they weren’t willing to come up with that." Auld said the plan was acceptable to the Senators players, but players on too many other clubs had concerns that were not met and satisfied.

"You can look at it from just your team’s perspective," Auld said, "but you have to look at the entire membership, because you never know when you could be on one of those teams, and the job of the union is to respect everyone.”

Daly said in the league's statement, "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." But Panthers rep Mike Weaver told Dieter Kurtenbach of The South Florida Sun Sentinel that the NHLPA's posture was more a result of poor communication between the league and the players than a disapproval of the plan, an observation that might be the most telling.

"We're not being unreasonable at all," Weaver said. "We asked for information for the new conferences and we received nothing back. If we had more information, we'd be able to make an educated decision … and if they don't provide us with the information, then we can't give the OK."

"For Tampa and Florida, it'd be tough to convince those teams that their travel is going to be much easier," Lightning rep Dominic Moore told Joe Smith of The Tampa Bay Times.

The Predators Ryan Suter empathized with players on teams who would have had to travel more often. “Those guys from the west just wanted to see how much more they’d have to travel so if there had been a mock schedule or something for them to go by it might have been different,” Suter told The Tennessean. “Guys have families and right now travel is tough as it is. If they make it even harder that would have been a disadvantage to certain teams.”

"The reports this morning are that we blocked it, that's incorrect," Jets player rep Ron Hainsey told Tim Campbell of The Winnipeg Free Press on Saturday. "We didn't block it. We asked to continue to meet. That's not blocking. There's some stuff...the players liked the idea of home-and-homes every year. But within a reasonable situation as far as the travel and the overnights, stuff like that.

"We didn't block it. We asked for some clarifications, some sample schedules, stuff like that."

Dallas player rep Adam Burish told Gerry Fraley of The Dallas Morning News that the players on his team liked the realignment plan because it would have meant better travel for them. The Stars are one of only two teams (the Wild is the other) that does not play in the same time zone with the rest of its division foes. "For the Stars, it would have been great. Would it have been as good for Philadelphia or St. Louis? Probably not as much as us," Burish said, adding that the the NHLPA Executive Board, "had to look at it as a whole."

Detroit rep Niklas Kronwall said that the players “overwhelmingly” disagreed with two parts of the plan during a conference call on Jan. 1, telling Mirtle of The Globe and Mail, “The unfairness of the playoffs, with some divisions being eight teams compared to some divisions being seven teams, it’s tough to get away from. Every player in the league feels like it should be an even playing field before the season starts.”

But Kronwall's Red Wings boss, GM Ken Holland, was mystified at the position taken by the players. "First off, you've got a 30-team league, and if you divide it by four, you've got to have two sevens and two eights," Holland told Gregg Krupa of The Detroit News. "That's just the math.

"I would say that (the proposal is) not so much an east-west league as a four-conference league," Holland said of the proposed realignment. "Your focus was on the conference. Certainly, we were aware that we were in an eight-team conference as opposed to some teams being in a seven-team conference, but what's the difference between the seventh and the eighth? You've got to be in the top four. If you're not in the top four, it doesn't matter if you're eighth or sixth, you're out. I'm sort of missing something, I guess."

LaBarbera countered, "I personally wasn't a big fan of the way it was set up as it was. I like the eight-team playoff the way it (is)."

TSN's Bob McKenzie, speaking Monday on Montreal's Morning Show over TSN Radio 990, reported that the league did ask the NHLPA for input before the realignment plan was finalized, but didn't receive anything tangible. McKenzie added that he didn't believe the questions being asked by the NHLPA were unreasonable.

In the league statement on Friday, Daly characterized the PA's refusal as "in violation of the League’s rights. We intend to evaluate all of our available legal options and to pursue adequate remedies, as appropriate."

McKenzie said the reason the league went forward with the plan was because the current setup was unfair to five teams -- Dallas, Minnesota, Colorado, Detroit and Winnipeg -- and that while other teams might be disadvantaged by the proposed realignment, the NHL sold it to the owners as a whole based on the greater good of the entire league. He added that the league anticipated that this step in the process might not go swimmingly. In fact, when the realignment was initially announced, the league claimed that it did not require the players association's approval to implement it. The PA, which insisted that it did have the right to give its consent, also insisted on exercising that right. And so, here we are.

Former NHLPA head Paul Kelly, now Executive Director of College Hockey Inc., told Winnipeg's TSN Radio 1290 that he was "a little surprised" by the PA's position and hoped "it's a temporary thing."

Kelly added that  he hoped another lockout was not in the cards. "I think there are some big issues but their issues that are resolvable. I don't think that people should look at this issue as being kind of a precursor to a lockout or work stoppage. I think there are smart people at the table. There is going to be some pushing back and forth. There are going to be some harsh words, but I think, my own view, that it will get solved and solved before the end of September."

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