NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (left) and True North Sports & Entertainment Limited Chairman Mark Chipman answer questions during an announcement of an NHL team returning to the city of Winnipeg during a press conference in Winnipeg, Tuesday May 31, 2011. Chipman isn\'t cheering but says he\'s not overly disappointed the team must play another season in the NHL\'s Southeast Division. THE CANADIAN PRESS/David Lipnowski
TORONTO - Discussions for a new collective bargaining agreement aren't even officially underway and the NHL and its players' union are at odds with one another.
What the breakdown over a proposed realignment plan highlights more than anything is the inability of the two sides to work together on an important issue. The NHL Players' Association was willing to continue discussions but the league imposed a Friday deadline because it wanted to get to work on a schedule for next season, leaving the status quo as the only acceptable way forward.
It doesn't sound like there's much hope of that changing soon.
"I think it's a dead issue," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Saturday in an email.
With both sides so firmly entrenched, it's impossible not to cast an eye towards Sept. 15—the day the current CBA expires. Even though Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr have yet to sit down together to kick off negotiations, the prevailing feeling around the hockey world is that they've essentially started in earnest.
"It looks like it will be one big issue now," Jets defenceman Ron Hainsey said Saturday in Buffalo, N.Y.
"We continued to request to meet and last night they decided to go on the offensive with their press release, claiming the players were being unreasonable and that they were going to shut the idea of it down," he added. "Now it's a judgment of what's reasonable and unreasonable and you guys can have fun writing about that for the next couple months."
The mere thought of CBA discussions is still a touchy subject for a league that saw the 2004-05 season cancelled by a lockout. The agreement that ended the standoff was a major shift from what came before it, giving the owners the cost certainty they wanted in the form of a salary cap while supposedly creating a new partnership between the league and its players.
The sides have found some common ground in recent years—they created a concussion protocol and have worked together on safety and equipment issues—but a hefty divide clearly remains.
Some players believe the current discussion around realignment could have been avoided had the union been given more of a say in the process that led to its creation. However, the logistics of getting that done along with satisfying the 30 teams would have been extremely difficult to pull off in time for next season anyway.
In fact, it was considered a great success that Bettman was able to get the board of governors to agree on changes to the playoff format and a dramatic switch to four conferences during its annual meeting last month. Since then, the NHL has been trying to persuade the union to sign off on it as well.
"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 in Friday's release.
One issue that struck a particular chord with players is the fact two conferences featured eight teams while the other two had seven. During a conference call with the NHLPA's executive board on Jan. 1, many players voiced their displeasure with the inequity in that system.
There are also some doubts about how much better the travel will be in the new system. Winnipeg, Detroit, Columbus and Dallas, among others, were expecting to see improvements.
"(They should) at least give us a little bit more statistics or more of a plan to see how it affects every team or if it is even going to be better travel," said Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg. "(It might) just switch the bad travelling around to other teams. It doesn't really make sense. ...
"We just need more (information) and I think we've got to work on it. Eventually we'll find a good solution."
How exactly that will happen remains to be seen.
In a perfect world, everything would have been worked out behind closed doors before a plan was presented publicly. But the history of labour relations in the NHL has been anything but perfect.
With Bettman and Fehr not expected to meet until after the all-star game in Ottawa later this month, it appears realignment is on hold until at least 2012-13. It means there will be one more season with Winnipeg travelling east and Detroit travelling west—provided a new CBA can be signed for that season to be played.
"I thought it was all set up and ready to go," said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. "We were going to be in a situation with less time changes, less travel. ... I understand there's some things that need to be worked out, but they've got smarter people than me to figure that out."
It's about time they get down to work.