Gamesmanship between Bettman and Fehr Begins.

The NHLPA’s rejection of the league’s realignment plan has given rise to fears another lengthy work stoppage is on the horizon, but are those concerns truly justified?

Friday’s rejection by the NHLPA of the NHL’s realignment plan is considered by many pundits and bloggers to be “the opening salvo” of what’s expected to be another round of contentious CBA negotiations, possibly leading to another lengthy work stoppage via lockout or players strike.

The game is afoot between Fehr and Bettman.

This consternation is understandable. The “nuclear winter” that was the NHL lockout of 2004-05 was an emotional, nasty experience none of us wish to go through again.

It’s important, however to step back, take a breath, and put this into the proper context.

Puck Daddy’s Greg Wyshynski observed the realignment plan was “a grandiose power play against the players”.

When the NHL introduced the realignment plan, it was believed its implementation was a fait accompli. It’s swift approval by the league Board of Governors last month were surprising moves from a traditionally conservative-minded bunch usually resistant to  bold changes to their product.

No one expected the PA,  having the right under the terms of the CBA to review and approve or disapprove such a plan, to make an issue over such a popular change to the current divisional system.

As always, when it comes to interaction between the league and the PA, things are never quite as they seem.

Wyshynski points out league commissioner Gary Bettman was using this plan to push new NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr for the first time, “probing the defenses” of the PA to determine their course of action.

PA director Fehr pushed back,  rejecting the plan because the players weren’t given an opportunity to contribute to its creation whilst the league seemed dismissive of their concerns, and demonstrating the PA isn’t going to just accept anything the league forced upon them.

Fehr indicated for several weeks the PA had some issues with the proposed realignment plan, and wanted to meet with the league brain trust to discuss them, but was virtually ignored, not just by the league, but also the media.

The PA doesn’t seem to have much leverage in the upcoming CBA talks, but Fehr quickly seized the opportunity to use realignment as a leverage tool.

Wyshynski and Erin Nolen of “Defending Big D” point out this was a PR move by the league, designed to put Fehr and the NHLPA into a “no-win” situation.

The PA either accepted the league’s realignment plan without question, signalling to the league they were vulnerable to such aggressive tactics in the upcoming CBA negotiations, or rejected it and face the widespread disapproval of fans and media skittish about another work stoppage.

Either way, it’s a PR win for the NHL. A nice bit of strategy on Bettman’s part.

The NHLPA has never won the PR war with the league during labor talks, and never will. It’s too easy for the league to demonize the players as misguided, naive greedheads, whose union leaders are more interested in their own self-interests than “the good of the game”.

By announcing the rejection of the realignment plan, Fehr – a seasoned sports labor negotiator – understood how this would go down.

The PA’s rejection of the plan is being met largely with scorn and dismay, but it’s also small potatoes in the grand scheme of things.

Notice the league didn’t abandon the realignment plan outright in the wake of the PA’s rejection?

Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said it simply couldn’t be implemented in time for next season. Obviously this will be brought up again during the upcoming CBA talks, where it will probably receive approval by the PA once the other, more important labor issues (escrow, salaries, guaranteed contracts, arbitration rights, free agent eligibility, continuation of tying the salary cap to revenue) are addressed.

Rejecting the realignment plan is only going to inconvenience a few teams for one more season, without doing any significant, lasting damage to the league. Fans, bloggers and pundits can rail against it, but ultimately, it’s much ado about nothing.

Those proclaiming Fehr is merely engaging in petty politics, or attempting to play chicken with the league, are missing the broader picture.

This is simply public posturing by both sides, a bit of negotiating gamesmanship before the main event. Sure, it indicates the next round of CBA talks won’t be a stroll in the park, but only the most naive would’ve assumed that in the first place. Folks shouldn’t leap to conclusions and assume it’s a portent of doom before the CBA negotiations have even begun.

New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, voicing his approval of Fehr in a recent interview, said, ““We all know we can’t have another stoppage,” he said. “Both sides know that.” Good  to remember in the coming weeks and months when the negotiations ramp up and coverage by the mainstream and social media intensifies.

Matt Wagner of “The Cannon” summed it up best:

This is a dance of mirrors, shadows, landmines, and knives. We’re an audience that will be played to, primed, pandered, and artfully manipulated by both sides before all is said and done. The battles will be fought in the media, at boardroom tables, in quiet phone calls and very possibly the courts. Expect quite a roller coaster, but don’t despair or hope of anything until we see an official schedule for next season”

6 Comments

  1. where do all these conclusions about response to the PA decision come from?(…” PA’s rejection of the plan is being met largely with scorn and dismay” ?) the PA was right, the NHL plan was is dumb and not thought out, and was rushed to market. BTW, if were GodBettman, I’d keep 6 divisions but shift teams like this to normalize travel (yeah the Pens and Flyers will bitch, that’s not news)
    From Atlantic to Central – Pitt
    From SE to Atlantic – Washington
    From SE to NW – Winnipeg
    From Central to SE – Nashville
    From Pacific to SE – Dallas
    From NW to Pacific – Colorado

  2. Quite possibly the most well reasoned piece I’ve read on this topic. Would do the “chicken little” sports writers (notice I don’t call them journalists, it would be a travesty to call them thus) good to notice that there are some well read and educated people out there. (unfortunately not many though)

  3. Fantastic article Lyle.

  4. Great piece Lyle.

    I don’t know what the NHL was thinking really… the proposed re-alignment was heavily flawed. I wouldn’t want to be a player one one of those teams in one of the divisions that has the one extra team. It just further limits a teams chances to get in the post-season. I don’t think that was smart or even fair, unless you’re cox because he thinks there is no difference in chances of getting in between the divisions that have 7 and 8 teams.

    I wonder if this is a way to approve expansion even though there are already existing teams that are hurting. 32 teams is a perfect number of teams. I can’t see them contracting at all since the NHLPA wouldn’t want that to happen. In short, realignment would need a better solution than what was currently offered and I don’t see any way of making that work unless they do some sort of wild card thing which I think it would have a 50/50 chance of working – wild card team would have to play one mini series to qualify – could be cool and exciting for fans but would players want to do that? The other option is expansion since no way contraction will ever be suggested. Hello 2nd team in Toronto and welcome back Quebec City! ;-)

  5. Very good piece, Lyle!

    I agree with the first poster in that, from the people I talk to about this, no one really seems to like the realignment plan. Many of the same fans who favor realignment will be the same one’s who, when they realize that they now only have Boston coming to town once a season instead of twice and in it’s place have a game against Columbus (no offense, Columbus fans), will be saying “this sucks”. Change often seems wonderful until you check out the details.

  6. I don’t understand the rush to realignment. Atlanta moves to Winnipeg, but Phoenix isn’t settled. I don’t fault the NHLPA for vetoing the plan. Solve the Phoenix question first, then find a way to travel less and have the same chance of mathematically making the playoffs in whatever group you are in.
    Oh, if unequal travel costs are the issue, create a travel fund where every team contributes approximately 1/30th of the total travel cost then use it to pay the expenses.