If Friday’s duelling press releases were the start of a contract war between the NHL and the National Hockey League Players’ Association, the winner in the court of public opinion was clear.
The NHLPA had lost again, and this time it was for taking a stand against a dramatic league realignment that it felt it had zero say in.
For the most part, fans and media spent the weekend teeing off on the NHLPA’s position, questioning the union’s motives and deriding the players’ concerns over travel and the fairness of uneven conferences when it came to the postseason.
In a poll on The Globe and Mail’s website, 82 per cent of readers opposed the NHLPA’s position as of late Sunday, evidence of just how strong fan support had been for the proposal.
So score the early days of the PR battle NHL 1, NHLPA 0, with those results looking eerily like 2004-05 and talk of another lockout in the fall of 2012 looming large (the current collective agreement expires Sept. 15).
The players, however, insisted their concerns were legitimate and not a negotiating ploy.
“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,” said Niklas Kronwall, the Detroit Red Wings’ player representative, echoing a concern heard in dressing rooms around the league on Saturday. “Every player in the league feels like it should be an even playing field before the season starts.”
David Steckel, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ rep, said: “Obviously there were going to be lopsided conferences. Some conferences were going to have an advantage over others.”
The NHLPA’s solution was to have a wild-card format for the postseason, something that would allow teams from the larger conferences to cross over to the smaller ones if they had a better record. According to union sources, the league rejected that proposal outright.
The NHLPA felt the league issued an ultimatum on realignment talks and then didn’t budge when suggestions were made.
“There was no willingness on the other side to have a conversation about how to possibly tinker with that,” said Ron Hainsey, player rep for the Winnipeg Jets.
The union’s travel concerns, however, seemed to arouse the most derision from fans and media, with talk of charter flights and spoiled athletes out in full force.
Unsaid, however, is that the NHL had its schedule guru, Steve Hatze-Petros, calculate some estimated mileage figures for all 30 teams, the results of which troubled the union. Under the league’s planned realignment, many teams would have had more travel, not less, including some already burdened with too many hours in the air.
In addition to the San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks adding more miles to their already lengthy schedules, the Jets were also expected to rack up even more travel time, a stunning revelation given that realignment was in part aimed at getting the recently relocated team out of a division with two Florida teams. Which may help explain why Jets co-owner Mark Chipman was muted in his disappointment that the deal was nixed.
But the sense seems to be that teams weren’t exactly enamoured with the proposed realignment to begin with. Four voted against it in December when it was first approved by the board of governors, and many more were merely lukewarm about the idea, willing to go along for the betterment of the league.
And because the Phoenix Coyotes could be the second relocated franchise in two years next summer, putting off realignment another season made sense.
In the meantime, this was an easy opportunity to make the NHLPA the bad guy, score a few PR points and do so essentially without changing a thing. Since when would one of these two old sparring partners pass up a chance like that?
If nothing else, this bad blood sets the stage for frosty relations long before contract negotiations even begin, which is bad news for all.