Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun discuss whether the realignment breakdown is just the beginning of a long, ugly collective bargaining fight.
BURNSIDE: Good day, my friend. Well, so much for a pleasant walk in the park for the National Hockey League and the National Hockey Players Association when it comes to the upcoming collective bargaining agreement. The players’ union fired the first shot across the bow by refusing to give consent to the league’s hard-fought realignment design, and the league announced Friday night that they were shelving it for the 2012-13 season. Take that, Winnipeg. And Dallas. And, well, you get the point.
Or was it the league that fired the first shot across the bow, knowing the union had concerns about how the schedule was going to look and about the inequality of the playoff format with the uneven distribution of the teams over the proposed four conferences and imposed a hard deadline of Friday for the union to get on board with it?
Hmmm, maybe more than a little of both sides taking stock of the other over this issue.
One thing for sure is this must feel like déjà vu to you. You were front and center during the labor dispute that cost the NHL -- and its fans a group often trod upon during these days of “negotiations” -- an entire NHL season and the playoffs in 2004-05. Now, do you think fans should be worried that the realignment plan, one that in the scheme of things isn’t a huge deal to the players compared to other issues that will come up in the coming months, is that big a deal? I’ve already seen where some observers/commentators are drawing a line between this moment and the likelihood the start of next season will be delayed if not worse by the fight to get a new CBA worked out?
LEBRUN: Well, if anyone wondered how Donald Fehr’s leadership would transcend for the NHLPA after decades as a hardline baseball union leader, they got their answer Friday. Make no mistake, the union’s rejection of the league’s realignment plan is absolutely draped in labor politics, the opening statement in the soon-to-begin collective bargaining talks (the current CBA expires Sept. 15). On the one hand, if I were an NHL player, I’d be comforted by seeing my union and my leader send a message that my side isn’t going to be pushed around when talks begin. That’s the message from Friday’s news.
Remember that the players essentially gave into a salary cap 7-8 years ago during the last CBA battle, a process that forced out their longtime leader Bob Goodenow. It was ugly. So Friday’s power play certainly demonstrated at least early on that the players aren’t going to be pushed around. That’s incredibly important for this specific group of players who still have the scars of having fired two of its leaders (Ted Saskin and Paul Kelly) over the past several years. They need to be a unified group. As a player, I take solace from Friday’s news that my group seems ready to stand for our rights in the upcoming labor talks. On the flip side, if I were a player, I would perhaps also question whether this is the issue where I wanted my side to flex its muscles on. After all, the realignment plan was largely greeted positively by fans and the ticket-buyers, and there’s potential here for the NHLPA to take heat from those fans for having that four-conference setup delayed at least a season. That’s the gamble Fehr and the players took Friday. Then again, the fans may also blame the league for forcing a deadline on the players. And so it goes round and round and round.
BURNSIDE: OK, so what about this theory espoused by an official who has seen many of these labor square dances over the years: The league’s not unhappy about this turn of events. Sounds crazy, I know, but why would the league let the union pull the pin on this plan if they truly wanted it to go forward. The league could have forced the union to grieve the league’s unilateral move to the four-conference plan and let the chips fall where they may. They could have had their schedule-makers build in a Plan B if the union was successful in such a grievance. Instead, when the union refused to grant consent, the NHL just threw up its collective hands and said, darn you, and went back to the status quo.
Since when does the league take that kind of position? The union doesn’t like something, and, oh, guess we have to stop? Do you think the fact the playoff situation remained murky beyond the first two in-conference rounds and the fact they had no names for the conferences and the fact that the 24-6 vote in California would likely have been a lot closer if they voted via secret ballot instead of in the open forum?
Maybe the issue was less important to the league than we imagined, given how quickly it all came together in Pebble Beach.
Shall I call Oliver Stone and have him start working up a script?
LEBRUN: I was just going to say, can you uncover JFK’s killer when you get to the bottom of this as well?
No question, though, there were more than four teams that didn’t like this realignment proposal but changed their vote at the last moment when they realized they had lost their attempt to block it. The Toronto Maple Leafs would be a prime example. Still, overall this is disappointing for most teams. You mentioned Winnipeg and Dallas, I can tell you the Detroit Red Wings are very dejected as well. They pushed hard for change in order to alleviate their Western travel.
But who really is to blame in all