NHL hopeful for upcoming peaceful labour talks with players’ association

The realignment proposal seemed like it would be rubber-stamped. Shuffle some teams around, create some new conferences, make sure each team made a visit to each NHL city. Sounded promising.

In a surprise move, the players’ association balked. They said there wasn’t enough time to consider the issue. There were concerns about travel, a potential competitive disadvantage, and even talk of wanting an expanded post-season.

Radical realignment was tabled and the 2012-13 season will start with teams locked in to the same divisions and conferences as this season. It doesn’t mean a new-look NHL won’t happen, it just won’t happen next year.

But around the league, the question lingered: Did the players have legitimate concerns about a realignment plan proposed with minimal input from the NHLPA, or was the veto the first step in a negotiating ploy with the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement set to expire after a seven-year run?

While the league wanted to celebrate all-star weekend in Ottawa, the prospect of another tough round of labour negotiations loomed over the festivities. Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Don Fehr are on good terms, but that could mean little at the bargaining table.

Talking in Ottawa, Bettman hoped the strike against realignment did not mean players and owners are on a collision course for combative talks.

“I don’t mean to put the onus on them. I would’ve preferred that the union approved it and we moved on,” Bettman said. “That wasn’t the case. So we took a step back and said we’ll deal with this at a different time and in a different environment. So my hope is that we can reason together and that collective bargaining will be painless and quiet and quick.

“That would serve everybody’s best interest.”

Fehr and Bettman have mostly abstained from discussing what they feel are the pressing issues. Certainly, realignment is an issue.

Like most sports, revenue sharing is expected to play a large role in negotiations. NHL owners would certainly like to cut the players’ share of revenue from 57 per cent to closer to something of a 50-50 split. One side will have to blink.

In a sports year soured by lockouts and lost games and workouts in the NFL and NBA, the NHL would love to buck that trend and use a cordial negotiation to ensure more seasons of labour peace. Bettman, and Fehr with Major League Baseball, have seen the painful consequences of when sides can’t find a common ground and there is a work stoppage.

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In baseball, Fehr led the players union through the 1994 strike and a World Series cancellation.

Bettman oversaw the 1994-95 NHL lockout that delayed the start of the season and forced a 48-game regular-season schedule. When labour problems lingered in 2004-05, Bettman shut down the league.

It took years for the NHL to recover from the lost season. So, they can’t afford to scrap even a part of another one.

The league’s board of governors could file a grievance over the NHLPA’s realignment decision. But their decision to not go that route signals this labour fight might not be much of one.

“Our focus was to be as non-confrontational as possible,” Bettman said. “While we still have the option of filing a grievance, it’s not anything we’re focused on right now.”

Earlier this season, Bettman said he hoped labour talks would start shortly after the all-star break. No formal discussions have been planned.

With the contract set to expire Sept. 15, neither side is in a hurry.

Bettman said the league is remaining patient in part because Fehr is only entering his second year on the job and still assessing the needs of his members.

“We’re ready and we have been ready, but the union has had some work to do,” Bettman said. “We’re being patient. I’m not concerned about the time frame.”

Fehr expects a timetable for talks to be established within the next few weeks. He prefers having players present at what he called “the really significant sessions” of labour talks, but said that doesn’t mean negotiations will have to wait until the season’s over.

Fehr did start the ball rolling by talking with the top line of his constituents—the all-stars.

“You’ve got to take advantage of the opportunity,” he said. “Gary has an advantage on me. He can pull a meeting of the board of governors together just about whenever they want because they don’t have to do something like play hockey games, so I’ve got to take advantage of the opportunities whenever I can.”

It’ll soon be time for Bettman and Fehr to make the most of their time together and ensure peaceful and prosperous results for both sides.


AP Sports Writer John Wawrow contributed from Ottawa.