Commentary

Daily Debate: Ugly CBA battle brewing?

Updated: January 7, 2012, 10:34 PM ET
By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun discuss whether the realignment breakdown is just the beginning of a long, ugly collective bargaining fight.

BURNSIDE: Good day, my friend. Well, so much for a pleasant walk in the park for the National Hockey League and the NHL Players' Association when it comes to the upcoming collective bargaining agreement. The players' union fired the first shot across the bow by refusing to give consent to the league's hard-fought realignment design, and the league announced Friday night it is shelving the plan for the 2012-13 season. Take that, Winnipeg. And Dallas. And, well, you get the point.

Or was it the league that fired the first shot across the bow, knowing the union had concerns about how the schedule was going to look and about the inequality of the playoff format with the uneven distribution of the teams over the proposed four conferences, and by imposing a hard deadline of Friday for the union to get on board with it?

Hmmm, maybe more than a little of both sides taking stock of the other over this issue.

One thing for sure is this must feel like deja vu to you. You were front and center during the labor dispute that cost the NHL -- and its fans, a group often trod upon during these days of "negotiations" -- an entire season and the playoffs in 2004-05. Now, do you think fans should be worried that the realignment plan, one that in the scheme of things isn't a huge deal to the players compared to other issues that will come up in the coming months, is that big a deal? I've already seen some observers/commentators drawing a line between this moment and the likelihood that the start of next season will be delayed if not worse by the fight to get a new CBA worked out.

LEBRUN: Well, if anyone wondered how Donald Fehr's leadership would transcend for the NHLPA after decades as a hardline baseball union leader, he got the answer Friday. Make no mistake, the union's rejection of the league's realignment plan is absolutely draped in labor politics, the opening statement in the soon-to-begin collective bargaining talks (the current CBA expires Sept. 15). On the one hand, if I were an NHL player, I'd be comforted by seeing my union and my leader send a message that my side isn't going to be pushed around when talks begin. That's the message from Friday's news.

[+] EnlargeRed Wings
Glenn James/NHLI/Getty ImagesThe Red Wings are one team that won't be happy if the realignment proposal does not eventually go through.

Remember, the players essentially gave into a salary cap seven or eight years ago during the last CBA battle, a process that forced out their longtime leader Bob Goodenow. It was ugly. So Friday's power play certainly demonstrated that at least early on, the players aren't going to be pushed around. That's incredibly important for this specific group of players, who still have the scars of having fired two of their leaders (Ted Saskin and Paul Kelly) over the past several years. They need to be a unified group.

As a player, I would take solace from Friday's news that my group seems ready to stand for our rights in the upcoming labor talks. On the flip side, if I were a player, I perhaps would also question whether this is the issue on which I want my side to flex its muscles. After all, the realignment plan was largely greeted positively by fans and the ticket-buyers, and there's potential here for the NHLPA to take heat from those fans for having that four-conference setup delayed at least a season. That's the gamble Fehr and the players took Friday. Then again, the fans also might blame the league for forcing a deadline on the players. And so it goes round and round and round.

BURNSIDE: OK, so what about this theory espoused by an official who has seen many of these labor square dances over the years: The league is not unhappy about this turn of events. Sounds crazy, I know, but why would the league let the union pull the pin on this plan if it truly wanted it to go forward? The league could have forced the union to grieve the league's unilateral move to the four-conference plan and let the chips fall where they may. The league could have had its schedule-makers build in a Plan B in case the union was successful in such a grievance. Instead, when the union refused to grant consent, the NHL just threw up its collective hands and said, darn you, and went back to the status quo.

Since when does the league take that kind of position? The union doesn't like something, and, oh, guess we have to stop? Do you think the fact the playoff situation remained murky beyond the first two in-conference rounds and the fact they had no names for the conferences and the fact the 24-6 vote in California likely would have been a lot closer if they voted via secret ballot instead of in the open forum complicated things?

Maybe the issue was less important to the league than we imagined, given how quickly it all came together in Pebble Beach.

Shall I call Oliver Stone and have him start working up a script?

LEBRUN: I was just going to say, can you uncover John F. Kennedy's killer when you get to the bottom of this as well?

No question, though, there were more than four teams that didn't like this realignment proposal but changed their votes at the last moment when they realized they had lost their attempt to block it. The Toronto Maple Leafs would be a prime example. Still, overall this is disappointing for most teams. You mentioned Winnipeg and Dallas; I can tell you the Detroit Red Wings are very dejected as well. They pushed hard for change in order to alleviate their Western travel.

But who really is to blame in all this?

As you mentioned at the beginning, I still have the scars of having covered every single day of the 10-month lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season. If there's anything I retained from that experience, it's just how every single maneuver and comment is soaked 10 levels in rhetoric and spin. You've got some very smart people on both sides of the divide planning and strategizing, and just where the truth actually shows up during that process for fans and media, well, that's difficult to ascertain.

On this specific realignment issue, the players' two main concerns are based on the increased travel and the structure of the playoff format. The union sought to obtain more information from the league, such as a draft matrix for the 2012-13 season under the realignment plan, to see how the travel would specifically affect its players. The league's position is that the union all along was not going to sign off on this plan and wanted to drag this out as long as possible. The league originally had set a deadline for Tuesday, Jan. 3, for the union to sign off, and it extended the deadline to Friday in the hope the NHLPA finally would accept it.

Forced to make a decision against a league deadline, the NHLPA said no Friday. But the union also is clear in saying it was open to continuing talks on the matter in the hope of finding common ground on realignment. The league said a resolution was needed because the schedule-makers have to get to work on next season's matrix. The league's position also is that realignment is not a negotiable item: Either sign off on it or not. Now we'll see whether the league decides to file a grievance, citing that the union unreasonably withheld consent. Can you feel the love here?

BURNSIDE: Having also covered those talks back in 2004-05, I recall being struck by the alpha wave of emotion that goes with the territory. You build up to one moment or issue, and at its height, it looks like it's the most important element of the whole set piece. Then you slide down and ride the wave to another topic or another deadline, and you build up to another fever pitch and that, too, passes -- and so the process goes.

It's hard for the fans, that's for sure. I also was struck by the ferocity of the process. Hard for fans to get a handle on when you're talking millionaire players and multimillionaire (billionaire?) owners, but this is life and death for them. Both sides feel they can't show any sign of weakness, even on issues that seem as simple as the realignment plan. How hard could it have been to get this worked out between the two sides, really? Yet here we are, formal talks not even on the table, and the two sides are kicking each other under it.

But I also would say I think it's unwise or premature to draw a line straight from here to, "Oh boy, better get out that old game of Life and get ready for some empty Saturday nights." The league is in a much better place in terms of both the on-ice product and the revenues, and its profile came away far more unscathed than anyone could have imagined at the end of the lockout. Both sides surely get that and understand that lightning is not going to strike twice for this group. Follow the same path to an extended work stoppage, and I can guarantee you the end chapter looks much more bleak.

LEBRUN: I do think Fehr, in the end, wants to make a deal and doesn't want to jeopardize next season's games. But understandably, the experienced sports labor leader felt the union needed to send a message from the outset that the players will not get railroaded just because other recent labor deals in football and basketball set the players back, specifically in their revenue shares. Hopefully, now that both sides have each other's clear attention, when they sit down to talk CBA in the upcoming months, they can cut through the ceremonial PR nonsense and get to the matter of it. My experience, though, is that these two sides need a real deadline like the opening of camp and then the start of the regular season to play their real hands.

Hopefully, I'm completely wrong. But I doubt I will be.