NHL

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

NHL, players' union to battle over realignment

Bettman determined to move misplaced Jets from Southeast Division for 2013-14 season

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BOCA RATON, Fla. -- The political prison that has caged the Winnipeg Jets in a geographic and competitive disadvantage will soon face the full scrutiny of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. His goal is to end it.

One way or another, the 2012-13 season will be the last for the Jets as a member of the Eastern Conference's Southeast Divsion. The Jets, misplaced in the Southeast, will be moved if and when Bettman has his way.

"We want the realignment plan the board adopted. Listen, getting a board to adopt a realignment plan as easily as we did tells you this is a really good plan that the board is committed to having," Bettman said at the NHL's winter GMs meetings Wednesday.

"That's what the board wants. I just decided I didn't want to have a confrontation or a fight with the (players') union at this place. So we'll talk about it. Ultimately, we want to get to that place."

The confrontation is coming, whether it's during this summer's collective bargaining agreement (CBA) talks or shortly after negotiations are wrapped.

The union wants to have a say in how the league is aligned and where teams play games. The league and its owners don't want to cede that power and a fight is brewing.

"I don't know, I'll have to see what the union's view on this is. We ran out of time. We had to start making a schedule," said Bettman, when asked what was the next step in realignment talks.

"The schedule goes through something like 90 drafts. It's not something you throw together in a week.

"We delayed it six to eight weeks longer than we normally do for the start of it. But at some point we had to move on and I figured better not to have a confrontation now."

The National Hockey League Players' Association's (NHLPA) move to step in the way of realignment, which would have seen the Jets move to a conference with Chicago, Detroit, Columbus, St. Louis, Nashville, Dallas and Minnesota, was made on shaky ground. The union has the right to withhold its approval on issues it deems "unreasonable."

The league could have pushed back and forced the union to file a grievance that would have led to mediation.

The union's move is widely believed to have been a political gambit, unwilling to put its blessing on a major concession prior to negotiations on a new CBA.

"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," said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly in the aftermath of the union's realignment refusal.

"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."

The league held off on legal proceedings when the realignment plan was drafted, but they could still be coming. If realignment doesn't get hashed out during CBA talks, expect the NHL to reintroduce the plan in the fall and then pursue it to the fullest, whether that requires a legal battle or not.

The notion that union members, which includes members of the Jets, are better off under the current alignment is ridiculous.

The footprint of the league has changed and a new alignment with more reasonable geographic division is needed.

Some players will travel more and others will travel less. That's life in professional sports. Players play in one town, hop on a chartered plane and play in a different town the next night. The travel can be onerous but it's one of the accepted demands placed on athletes making seven-figure salaries.

This exercise should have been completed in swift and simple fashion. Dragging it out for another year was senseless and destructive. But that's labour war for you.

But for certain, realignment is coming. Hopefully, labour peace is as well.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2012 C1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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