L: Donald Fehr C: Bill Daly R: Gary Bettman

The NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) and Executive Director Donald Fehr lobbed a hand grenade into what everyone thought was a quite pleasant cocktail party yesterday, informing the NHL that they would not approve the re-alignment plan that was approved by the league’s Board of Governors last month. This shocked the hell out of casual observers of the situation, though the undercurrents monitored by those closest to the situation had pointed firmly in this direction for a while.

What in the name of Virgil Johnson’s jock strap is going on here? Where did all this come from, and why is everyone in the hockey universe going non-linear about this? Sit back, make some popcorn, and buckle up: this is going to take a while…

Here’s a quick timeline. It all really got started when Phoenix started having financial trouble. The assumption was that the days of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s south/southwest expansion were all but dead, and one or more teams (including Phoenix) would be moving north/northeast. Foreseeing this, the rumblings of re-alignment began with the league around 2008-09. Something would, eventually, have to be done.

But what? And when? And how? Since Bettman was still fighting like hell to keep his precious Phoenix team in tact and in place, he essentially refused to consider any re-alignment plans before Phoenix’s destiny was known. So the discussion remained merely academic, with dozens of potential plans being put out onto the Interwebs (it’s a series of tubes, you know…).

So then, the Atlanta Thrashers’ situation went from not-so-great to call-the-movers, and the League approved their relocation to Winnipeg — to the happy sounds of ‘Peggers clamoring for their phones to order season tickets. The Thrashers went to Canadian Tire looking for parkas and snow shovels, and the 2011-12 season got underway with a seventh team north of the border — and WAY outside of the Southeast Division to which it is relegated for the time being. Re-alignment became an imperative, and the league announced its intention to get something implemented by the start of the following season. And in his typical fashion, Bettman has his own ideas about what will and will not happen with re-alignment. More on that in a minute.

For your reference: here are some articles from various sites that will allow you to walk through the timeline from June of 2010 up to the beginning of the Board of Governor’s meetings in early December: June 26July 13September 20September 26- October 12October 12November 1December 2December 3December 4

I have to say, though: the site put together by a guy calling himself Tom Fulery has done a great job of chronicling the last year of the situation. The maps page in particular is worth a look, if only for the you-gotta-be-kidding-me factor.

Okay, so now we come to December of 2011. The Board of Governors meet in Florida, and essentially, all hell has been breaking loose. Each team has their own petty grievances about one plan or another; each participant is angling for this little tweak or that little adjustment; and team representatives are forming alliances with other teams opposed to one or the other plan and generally ensuring the process gets fucked like a 10-dollar whore when the Captain is feeling generous with granting shore leave.

Two full days the discussion goes on. Most prognosticators see the process as all but over, since tempers are flaring and the discussion seems to be in a state of disarray. Then all of a sudden, there’s an announcement that a plan has been approved — and it’s the plan that Gary Bettman has been privately shoving down teams’ throats with threats and not-so-subtle intimidation since June. In the midst of all the ballyhoo over moving Detroit to the East or what to do with Phoenix if them move to Quebec City, the final plan is a pretty big shock to anyone who was not in the room.

Now, notice that despite dozens of reporters giving blow-by-blow from the meetings themselves, giving quotes from people inside the room who are detailing the process over the course of TWO FULL DAYS, Gary Bettman comes out and says that they only talked about re-alignment for about an hour. Nearly every hockey media outlet has been reporting the gory details for 48 hours, yet the man still has the gall to come out and say that. Die Fuhrer Bettman is the most transparent and despicable LIAR in professional sports, and a complete piece of shit. But I digress

Surprisingly, there is a lot to like about the approved plan — especially from the Blackhawks perspective. We keep Detroit in our conference (think “division”). We have a lot of both our old and new rival teams in our conference too: Minnesota, Dallas, St. Louis, Columbus, Nashville and Winnipeg. We will also get to play a home-and-home series with all of the other Original Six teams every season.

The new plan focused on keeping rivalries together: Rangers-Islanders, Flyers-Penguins, Toronto-Montreal, Toronto-Ottawa, Montreal-Boston, and so forth. But in order to do so, some sacrifices had to be made — and some teams got the shaft in a big way. Both Florida teams found themselves in a conference where the closest team to them in physical distance was 1,200 miles away in Buffalo, NY. That essentially meant that they would spend 44 games a year inside the state of Florida, and the vast majority of the rest of their schedule at least 1000 miles away. The new inter-conference home-and-home policy would also mean that the Florida teams would be making one or more trips to Texas, California, Colorado, Arizona, Alberta and British Columbia every single season. From their perspective, the Lightning and Panthers were just told to pick up the soap by the other 28 teams in the NHL.

So lots of teams liked it, some teams hated it, but to this point nobody has asked the players what they thought about it. And surprisingly, we got no news on that front… at all. Nobody had quotes from players in their articles, nobody got NHLPA representatives on record discussing the plan, and Donald Fehr was tight-lipped on the situation. That seems kind of odd, but not necessarily unusual. If they were in favor of the plan, there’s not really an interesting story to print; so it makes some sense that there wouldn’t be any media ballyhoo.

Now before I go any further, I need to say the following: what I am about to recount for you could be the absolute truth, or it could be a complete fabrication, or most likely a sprinkling of each with a heavy dose of spin added for good measure. Nobody has any way of knowing for sure, as we have no corroborating sources to verify what either the NHL or the NHLPA is saying. So you’re going to have to make up your own mind to a certain degree. I’ll explain why as we get further along.

According to the statement issued by NHLPA Director Donald Fehr and other reports from around the league, the union asked to have a representative present at any discussions regarding re-alignment. They wanted to have their voices heard on various subjects, including the one that affects players’ lives the most, team travel schedules. According to the NHLPA, the league refused that request. Keep in mind now, this request was not made just recently, this request was made months ago. They wanted to be in on the discussions from the beginning, and according to the union, they were denied that opportunity.

So essentially, the players had no better information about the plans being discussed than the general public up until the point where the approved plan was presented to the media. At that point, the league informed the NHLPA of the proposed plan, and also informed them that it would like to have union approval of the plan by January 6th of 2012.

In response, the NHLPA voiced concerns about travel, and also about the egalitarian nature of the imbalance between conferences when it comes to playoff qualification. Teams in a 7-team conference necessarily have a better chance of making the playoffs than teams in an 8-team conference. The union requested that the NHL engage them in dialogue regarding these two issues, and according to the NHLPA, the league refused.

As January 6th was (allegedly) set as a deadline for the NHLPA to grant its approval for the re-alignment plan, and since the union felt that its concerns regarding travel and playoff inequities were not adequately addressed, the players’ union refused to approve the plan. That’s when NHL Deputy Commissioner and Chief Legal Officer Bill Daly blew his stack, the press release parade began, and the media went nuts.

Whew! I’m tired already, and I’m not even to the good part yet — WHY did this happen? The explanation can be found in three words: collective bargaining agreement.

The CBA is expiring at the end of this season. It was supposed to expire this past summer, but the NHL and the players’ union agreed to a one-year extension of the prior agreement. That was just fine with the league (they got every single thing they wanted in the last CBA negotiation, why would they object?) and allowed the newly-installed NHLPA Director Donald Fehr to get familiar with the league, the needs of the players, and — as it turns out — get some leverage.

Starting to see this come into focus now?

Fehr is a hard-ass son of a bitch lawyer. He served as an associate counsel for the Major League Baseball Players’ Association while it handled what became known as the Seitz Decision case in 1977. He was subsequently hired as General Counsel for the MLBPA, and gradually rose to the position of Executive Director of that organization, a job he held until 2009.

During Fehr’s tenure as Executive Director, he forced the League into Federal Court and won a collusion case against them resulting in $280 million in damages paid to the players. He shepherded the MLBPA through the strike of 1994-95, and implemented a union “black-balling” of players who crossed picket lines during that strike.

Donald Fehr doesn’t take fucking prisoners, and he will press any advantage he can find. He is going to use the re-alignment plan as the setup for the upcoming CBA negotiations, where he will likely rub the league’s noses in their own feces as hard and as often as he has the chance. We saw that process begin last night.

So now that you know that, here’s the piece of the puzzle that makes no sense whatsoever: the NHL does not need NHLPA approval to implement the re-alignment plan. There is no contractual obligation, nothing written into the CBA, and no legal requirement that the players’ union even be consulted — let alone be given veto power. So why is the league responding this way? Daly stated on a sports talk show last night that he didn’t want to start a labor war before the CBA negotiations had even begun. The likely real reason? To start a labor war before the CBA negotiations had even begun. They are trying to paint the players’ union as the source of the problem, and this was a calculated move to begin that process.

Will this re-alignment plan ever be approved? That remains to be seen. The NHL has a history of ignoring requests from the players’ union, and Bill Daly in particular is a serious dick when it comes to such things. But Fehr essentially has Daly over a barrel right now: without a re-alignment plan for next season, many teams will put serious pressure on Daly to get something done. Irrespective of any CBA being negotiated, the lack of a re-alignment plan by itself may put the upcoming season in doubt — especially if Phoenix ends up moving eastward.

So what’s next? Well, the ball really is in the league’s court. They can shoot their mouths off to the press all they want, but in the end they really are in a tight spot. Daly is hinting that the NHL may take the NHLPA to court over their refusal to approve the plan. That is likely just a bluff, as they are probably well aware that the NHLPA has a good chance for being granted a summary judgement dismissing the case based solely on the statements contained in their press release. Additionally, since NHLPA approval is not necessary to implement the plan, the judge may tell them to go jump even before hearing arguments. So in all likelihood, that won’t happen. In the end, it really comes down to the following question: is the league going to attempt to stonewall Donald Fehr and the players’ union like they did with Bob Goodenow? Or will they sit down at the table and negotiate in good faith?

This writer’s opinion: I don’t think re-alignment will get done until the season is over, and I don’t think it will be implemented until the start of the 2013-14 season. I think that Bettman and Daly will try to turn this into a bargaining chip. Their likely next move is to pretend like this never happened, and in about two months they will announce that they will not publish a schedule for next year until a re-alignment plan is approved by the league and the NHLPA — and then make it known privately that they won’t discuss re-alignment until a CBA has been approved. They will then rely on fan and media pressure to coax the NHLPA into some conciliatory action — which, with Fehr in charge, simply won’t happen.

I think this is going to be a while, folks. Based on Fehr’s actions yesterday and what I know about Bettman and Daly, I think we can expect to be without NHL hockey in 2012-13. About the only hope I see for that happening is the league realizing that the problem is with Bettman and Daly, and firing both of those cocky bastards. But we all know that’s about as likely as the Canucks winning the Stanley Cup.

For a summary of the fallout from this. you can check out articles from TSN, ESPN, The National PostThe Toronto Star, PuckDaddy, and SBNation. Enjoy!

Follow Cheer The Anthem on Twitter @CheerTheAnthem and on Facebook
Download Cheer The Anthem’s Android app for immediate alerts to new posts
If you’re on your iPhone, save cheertheanthem.noticeorange.com to your bookmarks. Works like an app.