Like many fans, I was stoked when the NHL announced radical realignment for the 2012-13 season.
More reasonable travel! Guaranteed visits from very team to every city! Divisional playoffs! Huzzah!
But they didn't tell us what the playoffs would look like, exactly. And the more I weighed the bloody excess of divisional playoffs against the current model, which has consistently provided thrilling playoff races and playoff series without considerable inequity, I started to have buyer's remorse.
I don't think I was alone. As was noted on Monday's "Marek Vs. Wyshynski", an unnamed team executive inferred to my radio partner that the NHL had second thoughts about realignment. Maybe it was teams recalculating their travel or wondering if the path to playoff revenue just became more arduous.
To that end, the question becomes maddening:
When have you ever seen the NHL back away from a fight with the NHLPA?
When the NHLPA declined to offer consent, the NHL decided not to pursue realignment for the 2012-13 season.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly was on Hockey Unfiltered with Todd Lewis last weekend, and said: "Our CBA specifically allows us with the right to make decisions like that, gives union a chance to deny consent in a reasonable way."
The remedy for that denial is arbitration, to Daly said: "We've not made a final decision whether we will bring in arbitration."
But it didn't even need to come to this point, according to Daly, who said:
"We could have unilaterally implemented this. And probably could have done so in a way that would have insulated it for next year because I'm not sure they could have gotten an arbitration award in time to reverse our schedule. But we chose not to do that, and one of the reasons we chose not to do that is because we don't want to be overly confrontational with the players association."
Once more, with feeling: The NHL that was willing to cancel a season during collective bargaining now won't realign its teams out of concern for the NHLPA's feelings.
The NHL that battled the NHLPA over the Ilya Kovalchuk contract — the kind of long-term deal that could have been settled in the next CBA — was willing to pull a punch here. The NHL that's still in the quagmire in Glendale gave up realignment.
Does that seem like the NHL you know and fear?
Look, there's no question both sides are using this moment as the opening salvo/bear poking for the next CBA negotiation. It's very political. But that doesn't mean it's also unpractical.
Stu Hackel of Sports Illustrated has a dizzying collection of player quotes about the spiked realignment plan, including their concerns about travel and the playoffs. Minnesota Wild player rep Matt Cullen's words resonated:
"There's going to be realignment. I think it's just a matter of trying to do it right instead of rushing through it. There's a lot of information we don't have, and the league is still learning it, too. To be honest, I don't think it's a big scrap. It just a matter of needing more time.
"The travel, from the limited stuff we got, could be potentially worse for some western teams, including Winnipeg," Cullen added. "Without knowing, and it's late in the game, it's obviously hard to come up with a full schedule on a month's notice. Without knowing what that looked like, it's hard to consent or not consent when the potential is there for worse travel."
The earliest the NHL could have given a schedule to the teams and players was May. That's far too late to really know what the repercussions of this new format were, in the time frame the NHLPA was given for approval.
Is there really any reason to make this a process of several months rather than a couple of years? To wait for two additional expansion teams to balance out the conferences? To wait to see what time zone the Phoenix Coyotes will play in next season? To simply flip the Winnipeg Jets for the Columbus Blue Jackets for now with a vow to the Red Wings, Stars, Predators and Wild that their time zone dilemmas will be dealt with down the line?
Why did we need radical realignment for next season?
The cynic in me says this: Because the NHL anticipated that the NHLPA would bargain for a formal voice in the process, as it previously expressed a desire to have more input on team relocations and expansion, it tried to jam it through now.
But again, that's the cynic in me.
I'm still captivated by divisional play. I still want to see Wings and Jackets and Predators and Stars and Wild and Avalanche fans get more amenable travel schedules and TV time. I'm a little iffy on the change in playoff format.
Maybe you're with me, maybe not. But is there anything wrong with taking a step back and making sure we aren't creating additional problems with this solution?
Meanwhile: Do you really believe there's nothing more to Gary Bettman avoiding a fight with the NHLPA?