The NHL players association has dumped a big jar of CBA jam on the league's grand realignment plan, the first move in what many predict as a messy countdown to a lockout.
In rhetoric that harkened to the 2004-05 dispute that cost an entire season, the league announced late Friday it had delayed the 2012-13 makeover, and a proposed new playoff format, when it couldn't get the union's approval.
"It is unfortunate the NHLPA has unreasonably refused to approve a plan that an overwhelmingly majority of clubs voted to support," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in a release. "We have now spent the better part of four weeks attempting to satisfy the NHLPA's purported concerns."
He stated that fans, related hockey businesses and even players had liked the league's idea.
But some rank and file begged to differ, a union source telling QMI Agency that the players don't like a key tenet of the proposal that has eight teams in two conferences and seven in two others. Some of the conferences spread teams over hundreds of miles and a main feature would see one set of home and away games with non-conference opponents.
"Fourteen teams would have a better chance of making the playoffs than 16," said the source. "It makes no sense that any teams would want that either. It affects the players contracts and opportunities. There are holes in what they proposed."
The current CBA runs out on Sept. 15 and many have been waiting for new union executive director Donald Fehr to start making some waves. In his formal statement reacting to the league on Friday, Fehr touched on the travel and competition concerns and added that his request for a sample schedule matrix was denied. He said the league would not address direct union concerns about back-to-back games and length of trips.
Speaking to the QMI Agency's Mike Zeisberger before Christmas, Fehr outlined his concerns about realignment.
"Is there more travel or less? Does it produce more or fewer off days?" he said. "If so, are those more concentrated at home or on the road? Does it result in getting to away cities later? Does it affect the playoffs in a good way, or is it fundamentally unfair? And are there are certain divisions where it is mathematically easier to make the playoffs?"
Fehr concluded in his release that the league's Friday deadline for PA approval could not be met.
The league insisted it has shelved the plan because the uncertainty means it can't proceed with the 2012-13 schedule. As of now, all present divisions and conferences remain in effect. Teams that would suffer the most under the status quo would be Winnipeg, which was stuck in the Southeast Division this year when it transferred from Atlanta and Detroit, an Eastern team that played far too many road games in Western time zones.
Direct CBA talks are expected to begin during the all-star break in Ottawa later this month.
-- with files from Bruce Garrioch