Gary Bettman is freaking brilliant.
The NHL commissioner orchestrated the rarest thing in professional sports with his realignment ploy this season - the no-lose situation.
First, for those of you who missed the mess that broke last night, a quick primer: The NHLPA had to approve the NHL's four-conference realignment proposal because it changed the league's playing rules with regards to how the conferences and playoffs are put together.
The NHLPA had reservations about the plan, nominally about the competitive advantage to the teams in the seven-team conferences as opposed to the eight-team ones. They were not satisfied with the answers they got from the league, and they did not give their approval by the league's Jan. 6 deadline. Because of this no answer, the league scuttled the plan, at least for the 2012-13 season, and blamed it on the NHLPA.
All of that is detailed here in a great, thorough Puck Daddy article.
Now, the death of realignment for next season — which will anger several fan bases that celebrated easier schedules and more rivalry-friendly conferences under the new plan — has been pinned on the NHLPA. The NHL fires the first cannon in the public-relations war that'll be waged well into next season, as the two sides battle over the CBA.
And that is really what this is all about, in my opinion. This was never about realignment or helping out the Dallas Stars or Minnesota Wild or Winnipeg Jets. This was all about a power struggle and public relations war.
After the jump, find out how, exactly, this power play worked from the league, what we might expect from the PA going forward and the future of this realignment scenario.
Consider this - either way the NHLPA responded, the NHL wins.
If the NHLPA approved the proposal despite never being involved in the negotiations and having some questions about it they feel are yet unanswered, then they signal to the NHL that they are vulnerable to such power-play tactics in the upcoming CBA negotiations. It also robs them of the opportunity to get something in return for this in the talks. Thus, the NHL wins and goes into the negotiations in a more powerful stance than it did before. Even in the PR war, the NHL wins because the PA approval is would be little more than a footnote.
If the NHLPA does not approve the proposal, either through not approving it or outright rejecting it, then they lose a huge PR battle because the league does what it did Friday - blame the postponement of a popular move on the "bad guys" at the NHLPA. Thus, the NHL wins the PR battle and can use it to publicly pressure the PA throughout the CBA negotiations.
It's a masterstroke of public relations orchestrated by Bettman. It's also ridiculous manipulation of the fans that goes back to the original announcement of the plan. If PA approval is critical to its passage, as evidenced by the fact that the lack of approval has shelved it for the time being, then why not at least nominally involve the PA in its construction? And why, if the PA approval is still needed, did the league make such a big public announcement about the Board of Governors approval as if that made it official?
Because the entire thing is a power play by the NHL which was answered by a power play from the NHLPA.
While realignment was something the league undoubtedly wanted, it's obviously also something they can live without for the time being. The bigger goal in this, at least in my view, is what's listed above - either undercut the NHLPA's negotiating power heading into the CBA talks or to sour the public on the NHLPA, again, heading into CBA negotiations.
It's cynical and tactical and absolutely brilliant. The vast majority of the hockey world, at least the part that makes its presence known on the internet, is angry at the NHLPA today for quashing the promised realignment. And like was preordained since this began, that means the NHL wins.
So what's the NHLPA's next move if they are stuck in this corner where "NHL wins" lurks on every side?
Well they issued an oddly worded news release Friday night, citing travel concerns that are probably more mathematic than anything else and the issue of competitive balance between the seven-team and eight-team conference.
But my first step, and probably what I'd still do now, would be to reframe the discussion and give the NHL some stakes where they could lose in the court of public opinion, which is what I believe is really in play here.
For instance, if I were the NHLPA's PR consultant, and I am very glad I'm not, I might advise them to bring in something publicly popular that they want in the CBA, such as Olympic participation, to the discussion. I would tell them to say they wanted to do further analysis of the new plan to make sure Olympic participation would be feasible within the travel and playoff structure and they're not willing to offer their approval until they're sure the two would be compatible.
Would it be true? Only nominally, but again, this is a battle for the hearts and mind's of the hockey-watching public, something the NHLPA is solidly losing at this point. And the only way to get yourself out of a public relations battle corner is to make everyone else look in a different direction while you make your escape.
The upside for hockey fans, if there is one, is that this realignment is not dead. It's simply delayed as part of a bargaining chip during the negotiations. I have no doubt it will reappear in a very similar form since the NHLPA's objections to the plan are really there to facilitate their problems with the process. Once the process is addressed, either through the upcoming CBA negotiations or through other contact between the league and the PA, then I have a feeling we will see this or a very similar proposal put into place.
Until then, I will simply direct my rage at everyone - the NHLPA for playing the NHL's game and coming out as the PR villain and the NHL for setting this whole process in motion and putting the PA in a position where it felt like it had to say no.
Maybe next time, both sides can remember they're technically on the same side and supposed to work with each other rather than try to make power grabs.