The Winnipeg Jets can look forward to another long season of playing most of their away games in the southeastern United States, thanks to the stalemate that has developed between the NHL and the National Hockey League Players’ Association over the league’s ambitious realignment plan.
In a statement on Friday, the league said the union rejected the plan, adopted in December at the board of governors meetings. The proposal would have had the NHL reconfigured as a four-conference (as opposed to six-division) league divided mostly on south-north geographic lines.
That would have been a boon to the Jets, the former Atlanta Thrashers, who are playing out of the Southeast Division alongside the Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals this season.
The Jets were scheduled to shift to a mid-Western conference that would have included, among others, the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings, which would have meant a vastly improved travel schedule. Alas, it is not to be, at least not for next year.
In many ways, the dispute over realignment can be seen as the first shot across the bow of labour negotiations that will become a fixture on the 2012 NHL calendar. The current collective agreement between players and owners is set to expire in September, and the belief is that both sides are unhappy with some of its aspects. The players are dissatisfied with how the escrow process works, and the owners likely will look to chop the players’ percentage of revenue from current levels (57 per cent) to what NBA players settled for in their new agreement (50 per cent).
Realignment just looks like the tip of the negotiating iceberg, and the NHLPA will head into these negotiations with Donald Fehr, the former Major League Baseball union chief, as its (relatively new) executive director.
According to players’ association sources, the two primary objections to the realignment plan involved travel – and the possible increases in wear and tear on players under a schedule that they hadn’t seen yet – and the fairness question. Under the new configuration, two of the four conferences would feature eight teams and the two others would include just seven. Since the top four teams in all four conferences would qualify for postseason play, it made it easier, on a percentage basis, for clubs in the seven-team conferences to make the playoffs.
It was something that many players, including stars such as the Calgary Flames’ Jarome Iginla, raised as a potential red flag.
In a statement, Fehr explained the NHLPA's position this way: "Two substantial Player concerns emerged: (1) whether the new structure would result in increased and more onerous travel; and (2) the disparity in chances of making the playoffs between the smaller and larger divisions.
"In order to evaluate the effect on travel of the proposed new structure, we requested a draft or sample 2012-13 schedule, showing travel per team. We were advised it was not possible for the League to do that. We also suggested reaching an agreement on scheduling conditions to somewhat alleviate Player travel concerns (e.g., the scheduling of more back-to-back games, more difficult and lengthier road trips, number of border crossings, etc.), but the League did not want to enter into such a dialogue. The travel estimation data we received from the League indicates that many of the current Pacific and Central teams, that have demanding travel schedules under the current format, could see their travel become even more difficult. On the playoff qualification matter, we suggested discussing ways to eliminate the inherent differences in the proposed realignment, but the League was not willing to do so.
"The League set a deadline of January 6, 2012 for the NHLPA to provide its consent to the NHL’s proposal. Players’ questions about travel and concerns about the playoff format have not been sufficiently addressed; as such, we are not able to provide our consent to the proposal at this time. We continue to be ready and willing to have further discussions should the League be willing to do so.”
The NHL announced late on Friday that because the NHLPA would not give its consent, it would not move forward with its realignment plan for next year.
In a statement, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the players’ association had “unreasonably refused” to approve a plan that had the “overwhelming” support of the majority of clubs, and had also received “widespread support from our fans and other members of the hockey community, including players.”
“We have now spent the better part of four weeks attempting to satisfy the NHLPA’s purported concerns with the plan with no success,” Daly said. “Because we have already been forced to delay, and as a result are already late in beginning the process of preparing next season’s schedule, we have no choice but to abandon our intention to implement the realignment plan and modified playoff format for next season.”
Daly added: “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.”
Prominent player agent Allan Walsh tweeted an immediate response, disputing the league’s view of events, noting: “It is incorrect and inaccurate to report that the NHLPA rejected the NHL’s realignment plan. Never happened. League imposed a deadline of today.”
According to the league’s press release, the NHL will maintain its current alignment and playoff format for the 2012-13 season, which means that the Jets will continue to pile up the frequent flier miles for another season.