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”