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Future of NHL realignment shaky after players balk

| Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012

This should be a good time for Dallas Stars fans.

The murky ownership situation is stabilized after a stint in bankruptcy. Ticket prices were slashed. And, led by blossoming forward Jamie Benn, the Stars are even in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race, and are jostling for a postseason berth for the first time in four seasons.

On Thursday night, the Stars play at Los Angeles, a pivotal showdown for eighth place in the West. But it's going to be a late one deep in the heart of Texas.

Terrell Owens once commanded Cowboys fans to, "get your popcorn ready." Perhaps he can tell Stars fans to start chugging Red Bull.

Indeed, the Stars-Kings game has an opening faceoff set for 10:30 p.m., meaning fans who have to work the next day or attend school are staying up until almost midnight — or dozing off by the second intermission — for a regular-season game between two division rivals. That wouldn't happen for a Rangers vs. Devils game, or even Boston vs. Buffalo.

For the Stars, it's a painful cost of doing business stuck in the Pacific Division, where they regularly play teams two time zones west of Dallas.

"People lose track of us," Stars president Jim Lites said by phone. "Which means nobody watches. That's why we hate it. It's documented that it's clearly hurt our fan base and hurt our television ratings, dramatically."

Dallas was an organization in strong favor of the NHL's proposed realignment plan that would have shuffled the current setup and placed the Stars in a more fan- and travel-friendly conference with teams like Minnesota and St. Louis. The Wild, Winnipeg and Detroit also would have greatly benefited from the realignment proposal that also included a modified playoff format.

The plan stalled last week after the players' association refused to agree to the changes.

That means the 2012-13 season moves ahead with the status quo and leaves the Stars in the same division as San Jose, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Anaheim instead of the proposed eight-team conference with Detroit, Columbus, Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago, Minnesota, and Winnipeg.

"Our players were delirious when I talked to them in December," Lites said. "Everybody was just delighted."

Around the NHL, however, players wanted more answers.

NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr expressed concern about realignment in a statement: "Two substantial player concerns emerged: whether the new structure would result in increased and more onerous travel; and the disparity in chances of making the playoffs between the smaller and larger divisions."

The lingering question out of Friday's decision was if the players truly had issues with what the new conferences would mean to their schedules, or if it was nothing more than a negotiating ploy, especially with the NHL's Collective Bargaining Agreement set to expire after a seven-year run.

"I've never seen realignment issues being dictated by the players' association," Lites said.

So much is at stake in the next contract, from a revamped salary cap to salary minimums, that a new schedule is hardly a top priority in the long run.

But, after labor issues forced the cancellation of the 2004-05 season, the players are ready to show under Fehr they won't easily cede to the Board of Governors.

Fehr is very protective of the players' prerogatives under the National Labor Relations Act. He believes players are effectively 50-50 partners with owners over anything that affects their work rules, such as realignment, and that players are under no obligation mid-contract to agree to any changes.

Players insist their decision to call off realignment for next season doesn't mean a lockout or strike is ahead.

"Everyone's getting so worried and so concerned. I don't see it that way," Wild defenseman Nick Schultz said. "We're playing the game, but ultimately players are informed and we're starting to build so we're prepared for moving forward here in next few months, and then the offseason, when we start negotiating and getting things worked out and the CBA settled."

The NHL's collective bargaining agreement is set to expire Sept. 15, 2012, and discussions are scheduled to begin shortly after the NHL All-Star break at the end of this month.

The impetus for realignment came when the Atlanta franchise moved to Winnipeg, leaving a central Canadian club in a geographically awkward group with Washington, Carolina, Florida and Tampa Bay. The Jets play in the Southeast Division with Washington, Florida, Tampa Bay, and Carolina — all teams at least 1,200 air miles from Winnipeg.

Jets chairman Mark Chipman said the Jets are willing to sacrifice another season in the Southeast if the end result beyond 2013 are more balanced conferences.

"The travel has been challenging at times, but it hasn't been overly burdensome," Chipman said. "I haven't heard a lot of complaints."

Another sticking point• Under realignment, the league planned to have two seven-team conferences based in the Eastern time zone and the other two conferences would have had eight teams.

Like Dallas, Detroit had no problem being lumped in an eight-team conference, instead of seven, because it would play more teams in its own time zone.

"For us, it was a compromise because we were hoping to go to the East," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. "But we realized there were a lot of issues for a lot of teams, so we agreed to realignment because we thought it was in the best interest of the Red Wings and the league."

The new plan also would have guaranteed home-and-home series for every team.

The Bruins' visit to Dallas on Dec. 31 was their first since Oct. 16, 2009. The defending Stanley Cup champions helped the Stars pack the place.

"We've been a bankrupt franchise," Lites said. "We sold every ticket, every standing room, every suite, everything. It was the largest gross this franchise has had in like six years."

And Dallas wants them back. Every year.

The wait will just be longer than the owners hoped.

"We're disappointed it didn't happen," Lites said, "but confident it will."

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