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Friday, January 6, 2012
Stars disappointed with realignment delay

By Mark Stepneski

Dallas Stars president Jim Lites’ initial reaction to the news that the NHL had delayed its realignment plan for the 2012-13 season was short and to the point.

“Really disappointed,” Lites said.

That’s not a surprise. When the NHL’s Board of Governors approved a radical realignment plan in early December the Stars were considered among the big winners in the league. The Stars, who have played in the Pacific Division with Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose and Phoenix since 1998, would now play in a more time zone friendly conference with Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis and Winnipeg. The new alignment would mean less travel for the Stars and fewer late starts to road games, a big help on the television side of things.

The league’s plan replaced the current two conference/six division format with a four conference configuration. Two conferences would have eight teams and two would have seven. There would be a more balanced schedule with every team playing every other team twice, once at home and once on the road. There would be divisional playoffs.

But all that will have to wait now. Friday evening the league announced that the plan was on hold after the NHLPA failed to provide its consent.

“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," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said in a release. "We have now spent the better part of four weeks attempting to satisfy the NHLPA’s purported concerns with the plan with no success. Because we have already been forced to delay, and as a result are already late in beginning the process of preparing next season’s schedule, we have no choice but to abandon our intention to implement the realignment plan and modified playoff format for next season.”

NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr offered a response Friday night, citing concerns over travel and how teams would qualify for the playoffs.

“Over the last month, we have had several discussions with the League and extensive dialogue with players, most recently on an Executive Board conference call on January 1. Two substantial player concerns emerged: (1) whether the new structure would result in increased and more onerous travel; and (2) the disparity in chances of making the playoffs between the smaller and larger divisions,” Fehr said. “The League set a deadline of January 6, 2012 for the NHLPA to provide its consent to the NHL’s proposal. Players’ questions about travel and concerns about the playoff format have not been sufficiently addressed; as such, we are not able to provide our consent to the proposal at this time. We continue to be ready and willing to have further discussions should the League be willing to do so.”

Some would say Friday’s developments on realignment are the opening skirmish in the looming battle over the next CBA. Talks over the CBA, which expires in September, are set to open soon.

Caught in the middle are the fans, who were seen as winners under the realignment plan and are now set to lose, according to Lites. A big part of realignment was a more balanced schedule that would see teams play in every building in the league at least once every season. Lites said an NHL survey showed 75 percent of U.S. fans wanted to see every team in their building and a similar number in Canada felt the same way.

“This is all about the fans. Now in our case it’s really important to us because of the strain that is put on our fans to maintain contact with us when we’re playing all those games on the West Coast. It’s a big issue for us to have games in the same time zone,” Lites said. “It was the best thing from the fans’ perspective with real extensive polling. I think that’s what pushed teams that had always looked at things parochially to do what is right for the fans and for the game. New Jersey and teams like that had traditionally voted against travelling to the West had said I am going to do the right thing for everyone.”

The vote was 26-4 in favor of the realignment plan back in December. But now a month later everything is up in the air and that’s not good news for the Stars, who were looking forward to playing in a new, time zone friendly conference next season.

“It's depressing,” said Lites “I know fans overwhelmingly want this. We fought for this for years, and now to have it there and delayed for reasons that don't make any sense to me, I don't get it.”