Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Realignment and It Feels so Good Pt. 2: "Cold as Ice"

In part 1 of my realignment series, I discussed Major League Baseball's future realignment, where the Houston Astros will move from the National League Central Division to the American League Western Division.  Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association agreed to this as part of their newly ratified collective bargaining agreement.

Like Major League Baseball,  the National Hockey League wanted to realign their divisions for the 2012-2013 season.  In December, the NHL's Board of Governors were forced to realign due to the Atlanta Thrashers move to Winnipeg.  It did not make much sense to keep the Canadian team in the Southeast division so they did a one-for-one swap moving the Jets into the Western Conference.  Moreover, the NHL Board of Governors also voted on a complete overhaul plan that made even more sense in their eyes.  The plan was to realign the league into a 4-conference setup where the top four teams in each conference would make the playoffs and the initial two playoff rounds would consist of inter-conference match-ups.  However, much to the chagrin of the NHL's Board of Governors, the proposal was rebuffed by the National Hockey League Player Association and their new executive director, Donald Fehr.

 You might remember Donald Fehr from his days as Executive Director of the MLBPA, where he led the striking ballplayers during the 1993-94 world series cancelled season.  He was known to be a tough negotiator who got under MLB Commissioner Bud Selig's skin. The NHLPA have hired him to lead assist their union  in their upcoming CBA negotiations, as many feel that the owners bent them over a table when they cancelled the NHL Season and negotiated a very owner-friendly CBA.

The NHL was none too pleased by Fehr and the NHLPAs rebuff of their plan, as evident by NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly's statement:
"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."
"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."
So what are these legal remedies?  Arguably, the NHL could decide to unilaterally implement their realignment scheme and schedule.  They would argue that the realignment scheme and schedule does not affect the players'  "wages, hours or working conditions."  29 U.S.C. § 158(d). But Fehr is likely ready for such a maneuver as he made quite a convincing argument that the new schedule would likely affect the players' working conditions to their detriment. 

The NHL's proposed realignment included a schedule that required to every team to play a "home-and-home" game with at least every other team in the League.  This means there would be longer travel for eastern conference teams and more strenuous road trips for western conference teams.  Moreover, the realignment would create unequal amount of teams in each conference with 8 teams in the West and 7 teams in the East, meaning an east coast team had a better shot of making the playoffs.  The players would argue that this realignment scheme is a mandatory subject of collective bargaining because it will cause them to travel more, play more back to back games, and it competitively disadvantages some players to others based on geography of their team (i.e. play-off bonuses, etc.).

So what other legal claims could the NHL possibly make?  Maybe, they will claim that the NHLPA was not bargaining at arm's length, which is an unfair labor practice.  Under this example, the NHL, would theoretically argue that Fehr and the NHLPA are stalling on this issue as a way to hold onto a bargaining chip for the upcoming CBA negotiations.  But Fehr seems ready for this argument as well by his claim that the players have made efforts to fairly bargain on this issue:
 "We also suggested reaching an agreement on scheduling conditions to somewhat alleviate player travel concerns (e.g., the scheduling of more back-to-back games, more difficult and lengthier road trips, number of border crossings, etc.), but the league did not want to enter into such a dialogue
The travel estimation data we received from the league indicates that many of the current Pacific and Central teams, that have demanding travel schedules under the current format, could see their travel become even more difficult. On the playoff qualification matter, we suggested discussing ways to eliminate the inherent differences in the proposed realignment, but the league was not willing to do so."
Does the NHL have any other legal options?  What are your thoughts?
It will be interesting to watch their next move as more lockout craziness may be on the horizon.  The NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement expires on September 15, 2011 and with Fehr now the NHLPA head honcho, the situation may again get ugly before it gets better.  

No comments:

Post a Comment