Tuesday, January 10, 2012

NHL Armageddon 2012 – here we go again

The National Hockey League became the first major professional sports league to lose an entire season to a work stoppage six years ago, when the league and the NHL Players Association failed to agree on a new collective bargaining agreement causing the cancellation of the NHL’s 2004-05 season. The two sides agreed on a new six-year CBA on July 13, 2005. The current CBA expires before the start of the 2012-13 NHL season. The NHLPA now led by former Major League Baseball Players Association Don Fehr, over the weekend fired the first salvo in what could result in the NHL shutting down the league for the second time in six years.

In a series of emails to the NHL (and to the media) the NHLPA (Don Fehr) turned down the NHL’s planned realignment plans for next year.

“On the evening of December 5, 2011, the NHL informed the NHLPA that they proposed to put in place a four-conference format beginning with the 2012-13 season. As realignment affects Players’ terms and conditions of employment, the CBA requires the League to obtain the NHLPA’s consent before implementation. Over the last month, we have had several discussions with the League and extensive dialogue with Players, most recently on an Executive Board conference call on January 1. 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 through Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly was quick to react to Fehr’s annoucement: "It is unfortunate that the NHLPA has unreasonably refused to approve a plan that an overwhelming majority of our clubs voted to support, and that has received such widespread support from our fans and other members of the hockey community, including players," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said.

"We have now spent the better part of four weeks attempting to satisfy the NHLPA's purported concerns with the plan with no success. 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.

"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."

Daly’s suggestion that “. We intend to evaluate all of our available legal options” isn’t a friendly response. Daly (and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman) and Fehr are all lawyers. It’s never good when one lawyer representing (in this case management and ownership) make a veiled suggestion “let’s see what we can do legally to change the mind of our workforce” (forget about trying to talk to the workforce).

The NHL’s realignment plan on many levels makes sense. Many of the divisions create geographical rivalries. It isn’t a perfect system. It may not be as good as the current divisions the NHL uses but the revised playoff formula (teams would play within their division for the first two rounds), is similar to the playoff system the NHL enjoyed many years ago. And that made for great hockey.

While as Fehr indicated realignment (the players’ right to agree to the proposed changes) are part of the current CBA, this is a classic example of choosing your battles. Is this a war Don Fehr and the NHLPA really want to fight (can they live with the proposed changes) and is this really more of a message the NHLPA (Fehr and company) are trying to send the NHL (Bettman and company)?

Under the Bettman proposed realignment, the NHL wanted to have two seven-team conferences based in the Eastern time zone: New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Washington and Carolina in one and Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Buffalo, Florida and Tampa Bay in the other.

The other two conferences would have had eight teams, with Detroit, Columbus, Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago, Minnesota, Dallas and Winnipeg in one, and Los Angeles, Anaheim, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Colorado in the other.

The USA Today obtained an email NHL Player Association general counsel Don Zavelo sent to Bill Daly that followed the Fehr’s NHLPA release that stopped the realignment process.

The second email suggested the NHLPA wouldn't sign off on the realignment because "we lack the information necessary to answer player questions and concerns about the proposal's impact on travel."

Daly told the USA Today "The deadline didn't come out of thin air. We actually asked for an answer by Tuesday and extended several days to accommodate further discussion."

National Hockey League players travel on private charters. They stay in five star hotels. The proposed changes put teams in the same time zone (easier travel for the most part). Teams would play at least one game in each NHL city during the regular season. Currently NHL franchises play an unbalanced regular season schedule were teams do not play each other in each other’s arenas each season. The proposed schedule would create some additional travel but it gives NHL fans what they’re looking for, a chance to see every NHL team in their buildings each NHL season.

This really seems to be about Don Fehr sending Gary Bettman a message. When the NHL and the NHLPA reached an agreement on a new CBA in July 2005 the NHLPA agreed to a salary cap, a system along the lines of what basketball and football players had agreed to in the 1980’s. The only North American professional sports league without a salary cap since the NHLPA accepted a salary cap are baseball players who were once led by Fehr.

Don Fehr knows he isn’t going to turn back the clock and return the NHL to the system that existed before July 2005. He isn’t going to undo the salary cap. The current CBA guarantees NHL players 57 percent of hockey generated revenue. In November NBA players accepted a new CBA that reduced their guarantee from 57 percent of the basketball related income to 50 percent of the basketball related income.

That’s the battleground Don Fehr and Gary Bettman are headed towards, the realignment salvo Don Fehr sent Gary Bettman – nothing more than a subtle message making it clear to Bettman – the NHLPA isn’t going to roll over and accept whatever the NHL wants the NHLPA too.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

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