First salvo has been fired in CBA battle

Small picture, the NHL's plans to realign itself have been heaved unceremoniously on the rocks by the players' union.

Oh well. Change will come at some point. After all, the Winnipeg Jets aren't going to stay in the Southeast Division forever. Even two sides that apparently can't agree on up and down or black and white should be able to agree that that's nonsense.

Big picture, though, the rather shocking refusal by the National Hockey League Players' Association to accept the league's realignment plans and the league's equally shocking announcement Friday night that the plans are now on hold -- at least through the end of next season -- are a stark reminder that the end of the current collective bargaining agreement is much closer than we thought and that the future of the game remains anything but certain.

In short, we aren't in Kansas anymore, Toto.

The NHL released a terse statement Friday night saying the NHLPA would not give needed consent to the move to a four-conference alignment finalized a month ago in California by the league's board of governors and, that as a result, the league would use the current six-division system and playoff format next season.

"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," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement.

One of those "remedies" could be appealing to an impartial arbitrator, but a league source told ESPN.com Friday night that no decision has been made on the league's next move.

The players' association's complaints with the new alignment are based on expanded travel and the new playoff format, which sees the first two rounds played within the conference, with two conferences having eight teams and two having seven. Requests for assurances that teams wouldn't be forced into a series of long road trips with multiple back-to-back games to reduce the number of road trips were not given, according to the NHLPA.

"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," executive director Donald Fehr said in a statement released late Friday night.


Travel? And the playoff grid?

The players' association insists it came to this conclusion through conference calls and polling of players, and that the players are overwhelmingly against the realignment plan.

Still, surely many players will be annoyed to be playing under the same system next year.

And against the backdrop of the future of the salary cap and the percentage of hockey-related revenues that will go to players, player safety, free agency and myriad other issues that will confront the players in the coming months, surely the issue of how the 30 teams are divvied up come playoff time must rank far down the list.

After all, they're not traveling by mule train and the league isn't trying to reduce the number of teams actually in the playoffs, so there is zero change to the players' bottom line.

But then again, this is less about realignment and more about giving the league a kick in the, er, shins.

The players' association has always believed the "partnership" that saw the end of the lockout in the summer of 2005 has been on many levels a farce. The players feel they have been excluded in the discussions of important issues, such as relocation and expansion. Moments after the board of governors decided on realignment last month, the players'
association insisted publicly it wasn't a done deal, and the NHLPA still needed to sign off on it.

The league pooh-poohed the union's complaints.

While the league believes the union has no right to engage in the discussion on realignment, the players' association, in the absence of a mock schedule that would outline exactly how travel would be affected, has tried to push the realignment issue under the collective bargaining umbrella.

Instead, the league imposed a Friday deadline for the union's consent and the union, which insisted it was willing to keep talking on the issue, pulled the plug.

For a union that has reeled from one embarrassing moment to another since the lockout, this is a rare chance to assert itself, to reinforce that it is not the league's lapdog.

Commissioner Gary Bettman worked hard to build the consensus he needed to get the minimum 20 teams required to pass the realignment vote.

The plan was well-received around the league and by fans who were going to see every team in the NHL at least once under the new system.

Now, at least for the time being, the union has thwarted the commissioner's well-laid plans.

"Really disappointed," Dallas Stars president Jim Lites told ESPNDallas.com. "It's depressing. I know fans overwhelmingly want this. We fought for this for years, and now to have it there and delayed for reasons that don't make any sense to me, I don't get it."

Did the league force the players' association's hand by imposing a deadline, thinking it would simply go along with the deal?


Or was the union so intent on delaying this that it had no intention of giving consent regardless of the deadline? It's interesting that when invited to provide options on realignment before the December board of governors meetings, the union failed to offer any.

Of course, if the union is looking to build public support, this is the kind of move that might not get a favorable verdict in the court of public opinion.

Or how about this: Perhaps the league went this way to buy itself another year of the current system, allowing the union to facilitate another year of status quo given that there remained many teams, mostly in the East, that weren't in favor of the new system.

Bottom line is that this move allows new executive director Fehr to flex his muscles early in the process on an issue that at the end of the day is relatively innocuous in terms of the players'
bottom line.
They still get paid the same regardless of how many charter flights they take.

Fehr's players have been getting to know him through meetings and conference calls but now they get to see him in action, and even if they don't care or even if they disagree with the decision to put the kibosh on realignment, they will see a leader not prepared to let anything slide by.

This move proves everything is on the table and nothing is free.

If there is one disturbing element of this, it's that drawing a line in the sand this early on and over an issue that in many ways was a big win for the league and its fans could set an early tone of discord.

Even before the two sides actually sit down to figure out if they can avoid the disaster of the last CBA -- which should happen sometime after the All-Star break -- does the blowing up of realignment suggest that more damaging explosions are on the horizon?

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com. Mark Stepneski of ESPNDallas.com contributed to this report.