There's still faint hope that a dramatic re-imagining of the NHL will become reality, but it won't happen without the union's approval.
The league's planned realignment from six divisions to four conferences for next season had been approved by the board of governors in December pending input from the NHL Players' Association.
But the league's plan was stalled Friday after the union opposed the changes. Instead, the NHL will maintain its current alignment and playoff format for the 2012-13 season.
"On the evening of December 5, 2011, the NHL informed the NHLPA that they proposed to put in place a four-conference format beginning with the 2012-13 season," union head Donald Fehr said in a statement.
"As realignment affects players’ terms and conditions of employment, the CBA requires the League to obtain the NHLPA’s consent before implementation. 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 Jan. 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.
"In order to evaluate the effect on travel of the proposed new structure, we requested a draft or sample 2012-13 schedule, showing travel per team. We were advised it was not possible for the league to do that. 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.
"The league set a deadline of Jan. 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."
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the league was unable to address the union's concerns despite four weeks of negotiations.
"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," said Daly in a statement.
"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."
The off-season relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg in June forced the NHL to reconsider its divisional structure.
The new plan tried to address teams' travel concerns, as well as guarantee home-and-home series for every team and change the league's playoff format.
Shortly after the plan was approved, commissioner Gary Bettman said the NHLPA had expressed concerns but that the league didn't need the union to sign off on the changes.
Fehr rejected Bettman's claim and said the proposed plan would have fallen under the players' terms and conditions of employment in the collective bargaining agreement.
The plan was to have two conferences with seven teams all based in the Eastern time zone: New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Washington and Carolina in one and Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Buffalo, Florida and Tampa Bay in the other.
The third conference consisted of eight teams in the Eastern and Central time zones: Detroit, Columbus, Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago, Minnesota, Dallas and Winnipeg.
The fourth conference had eight teams in the Mountain and Pacific time zones: Los Angeles, Anaheim, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Colorado.
Players reacted warmly to the changes in December, but some expressed concern with the increased travel during the regular season.
The uneven conferences, which featured two made up of eight teams and seven teams in the other two, was also contested since the number of teams qualifying for the playoffs would have been four in each conference.
"Personally, I'd like to have the same shot at making the playoffs as everybody else," Flames winger Alex Tanguay said at the time. "If you're in one of those conference that has eight teams, it's definitely going to be much tougher than [those with] seven teams to make the playoffs.
"I don't know how they can make that work. I'm sure there's a solution."
The union's move to block the plan won't be welcomed in Winnipeg, with the Jets facing another travel-heavy year in the Southeast Division.
The team had no comment on the delayed realignment when contacted by The Canadian Press on Friday, but Jets co-owner Mark Chipman planned to address the delay at a news conference Saturday.
The lost plan also sets an uneasy tone to the start of labour talks, which were expected to begin after the all-star weekend later this month but are essentially underway now.
The collective bargaining agreement is set to expire Sept. 15.