With the news that the NHLPA has refused to provide consent for realignment, one of the few bright spots this season for the Blue Jackets appears to have gone supernova.
Before we all leap off a cliff, however, let's back up and consider a few things.
- This is a negotiation tactic - NHLPA head Donald Fehr is a lot of things, but he's nobody's fool. Are some players truly unhappy about realignment? I've no doubt. I bet a lot of them play for teams in the current Northeast and Southeast divisions, who are suddenly looking at a once a year West Coast / NW Canada swing and the knowledge that their division suddenly stretches from Quebec down to the Florida Keys. But I strongly doubt that their voice was loud enough to silence the many Western Conference players who were as in favor of this move as their clubs. What this is for Fehr and the NHLPA board is a bargaining chip for when the new CBA negotiations begin around the all star game weekend. Why do I have a feeling that NHL participation in the 2014 Olympics (which Commissioner Bettman and quite a few owners have been hesitant to endorse) will be compared to the realignment proposal by Fehr? You scratch our back....
- Nothing this complex is ever truly "dead" - While the NHL apparently had set a deadline to get approval from the NHLPA for "scheduling reasons", this is a situation where complex scenarios were already being worked on - and likely included a mind boggling number of variables given ownership situations in St. Louis, Florida, Phoenix, and Long Island. Is the NHL truly incapable of preparing an NHL schedule for the "new" format in just over six months when they were able to absorb the move of Atlanta to Winnipeg in less than a month? I strongly doubt it. The schedule makers will likely keep on setting up schedules for every possible format, just in case. In addition, remember that realignment is an issue with vested interests and long tails for every participant in the dance. Just as it took several years of quiet discussion and almost six months of open talk after the Jets' resurrection to settle on one plan, it will likely take more than this deadline to truly stop it.
- Press Releases Are Worth The Paper They're Printed On - So the NHL says it's "dead" and could likely see the league moving into the 2012-2013 season with the current format. So the NHLPA will likely come back saying this was a situation that they regret, but believe that their issues can be resolved with some discussions in good faith. So the NHL will probably send out quiet feelers through twitteratti and NHL "insiders" about things moving forward again later. It will be some time before anything is truly decided - don't let yourself get too deep in either camp's hype.
- Another Lockout is POSSIBLE, but not given - While the fear that this could trigger a wider dispute as the NHL and PA open labor negotiations is a real one, we're barely seeing the pawns moved across the board right now. The fear of one side or the other sweeping all the pieces and walking away isn't worth dwelling on.
This is a dance of mirrors, shadows, landmines, and knives. We're an audience that will be played to, primed, pandered, and artfully manipulated by both sides before all is said and done. The battles will be fought in the media, at boardroom tables, in quiet phone calls and very possibly the courts. Expect quite a roller coaster, but don't despair or hope of anything until we see an official schedule for next season.
One thing is for sure: It's going to be a long six or seven months.