CALGARY, ALBERTA - NHL realignment is off -- for now.
In what sure looks like the first pawn in a larger chess game as collective bargaining agreement negotiations are about to begin with the NHL Players' Association, the league announced Friday night that it will not move forward with realignment next season.
In a move that disappointed Wild owner Craig Leipold, the union would not provide its consent by a Friday deadline imposed by the league.
"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 statement. "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."
On Dec. 5, NHL teams reportedly voted 26-4 in favor of a four-conference NHL realignment.
The Wild was one of the biggest winners, moving out of the Northwest Division with Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Colorado into a conference with Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Nashville, St. Louis and Winnipeg.
This was the type of alignment Leipold had craved since purchasing the Wild in 2008. The reasons? 1) Better geographical rivalries; 2) shorter flights; 3) fiscally more attractive; 4) fewer trips through customs; 5) earlier start times, meaning fans can watch more road games on TV.
"To say I am disappointed in the actions of the NHLPA to deny consent to implement realignment for next season is an understatement," Leipold said in an e-mail. "Our fans were universally excited to be playing against Midwestern teams in the previous old Norris Division.
"I'm disappointed for our fans, our employees and our players. It appears everyone wanted this to happen except the leaders of the players union. I pledge to Wild fans to continue to pursue this realignment plan as aggressively as possible."
The union claims its concerns revolve around travel issues and the playoff structure, which would call for four out of seven teams to make the playoffs in two conferences and four out of eight in two others, including the Wild's.
But the current CBA expires before next season, and realignment is one piece of leverage held by NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr. You can bet realignment will be a big part of negotiations.
"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," Fehr said in a statement released Friday night. "We continue to be ready and willing to have further discussions should the league be willing to do so."
Said Daly: "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."