The plan, which was approved by the NHL Board of Governors on Dec. 6, 2011, involved a radical change of both the regular season and postseason league arrangement.
Four seven- or eight-team conferences would replace today's two 15-team conferences under the proposed system; the change would shorten travel distances for many clubs, allow every team to play in every arena every season, and accommodate the new franchise in Winnipeg much more suitably.
For more details on the plan as a whole and the most radically affected teams, read our breaking news report and analysis from just hours after the plan's unveiling.
However, the Players' Association today denied consent for the plan. Despite its near-unanimous approval from the league owners, the NHLPA clearly has found a serious yet currently undisclosed problem with the proposed system.
As would be expected, the league retorted back through the voice of its deputy commissioner, Bill Daly. As per NHL.com, Daly argued:
Which side is to blame for the conference re-alignment dispute?
"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 ... 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."
If this budding showdown between the players and owners sounds familiar, it's because it is.
And it's called a lockout.
Indeed, the same thing that notoriously eliminated 2004-05 NHL season—as well as part of the 1994-95 NHL season and this year's NBA season—has returned to the fringe of the hockey world. With the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expiring this September, as well, a prolonged debate could easily turn into a complete NHL shutdown in a matter of months.
There is never a good time for a lockout, but, if anything, 2012 would be an especially horrendous year for one to again strike the NHL.
The outlook on hockey in North America is brighter than ever right now. The NHL is experiencing more support, more attention and more enthusiasm than ever before. They've just begun a massive 10-year television contract with NBC. There's a shining new team in hockey-crazy Winnipeg, Manitoba. And hockey in the South might even finally be gaining some traction.
Not only could all of these glorious achievements over the past year be utterly erased by a lockout, but there's even a question if a 30-team NHL could truly survive their third lockout in 18 years.
Would contraction be a forced result? Franchises like the currently owner-less Phoenix Coyotes, soon-to-be-arena-less New York Islanders and fanbase-lacking Florida Panthers are all teetering on the edge, and seem unlikely to survive a full year of no profits.
If those clubs, and very possibly several more, collapse, the NHL and the NHLPA would then be required to turn to a new league alignment—for the actual makeup of the league would be different.
Clearly, the argument covers a full circle; a full circle of disaster after disaster.
A swift agreement between the two sides would be pleasant but also quite surprising, considering the lengthening history of unstable relations between the NHL's owners and players. Fans need not completely panic yet—but this seemingly insensible holdout from the side of the Players' Association certainly has the potential to carry drastic side-effects.
Yes, the new proposed alignment plan has its cons, in addition to its pros. But is it worth damaging the entire base of North American hockey to fix a few minor disagreements, though? Absolutely not.
The NHLPA needs to settle down, negotiate for a few days, and then find a solution.
Because North America needs NHL hockey. And so do the players.
Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist and community leader for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes. In his 40 months so far with the site, he has written over 330 articles and received more than 390,000 total reads.