Oldfield: NHL ups and downs just part of bargaining process

With all the false hope these NHL negotiations have encouraged, it's no wonder the level of cynicism is so high. But bargaining progess can't be measured by individual actions. It's the totality of the exercise that matters, writes labour expert Dan Oldfield.
Commissioner Gary Bettman is involved in trying to negotiate a complex collective agreement with NHL players. (Kathy Willens/Associated Press)

With all the false hope these NHL negotiations have encouraged, it’s no wonder the level of cynicism around these talks is so high.

The first thing I tell newcomers to a bargaining committee is that bargaining is not an event, it is a process. It can’t be measured by individual actions. It’s the totality of the exercise that matters.

Negotiating a collective agreement starts before the parties meet, and continues during the various meetings and after the deal is done. It will have many hills and valleys, and the trick is to not get too down or too up along the way.

Part of what has frustrated me as I’ve followed the machinations between the NHL and its Players’ Association from a distance is that these talks are constantly being treated as a series of events, measured in ways that do not reflect what is actually taking place.

I watched a national sports network actually do a midnight countdown, as if they believed something of significance was going to happen because the NHLPA had set that time as a so-called deadline for its disclaimer of interest. Nothing happened, so they and the rest of the media had to move on to another event.

Every move, every discussion, every rumour is treated separately, as though it were free-standing from the negotiating process.

Assessments are made about the importance of who is attending sessions and who is not. Truthfully, it is an assessment impossible to make unless you are in the room.

What is happening today is just as important as what happened yesterday, what happened months ago and what will happen tomorrow. It is all part of the process.

So the measuring of progress based on the apparent resolution of pieces of the picture is unrealistic and unhelpful. Eventually, bargaining does get down to one or two things that have to be resolved before the deal is done. But in a complex collective agreement like the one between the NHL and NHLPA there are a lot of moving parts.

It is reasonable to expect, as the issues get hammered out, there will be times when things seem to be going backwards, other times when they seem to be gaining momentum and others when it seems the whole thing has come to a stop. Good bargainers know this, make appropriate assessments and continue to search for the deal.

By the way, this is where a mediator can and often does help. The fact the parties did not emerge with a new deal and big grins the last time the mediator showed up is not a measure of failure. It is an element of the process. Along the way, the mediator gains knowledge of the parties and their issues and can often serve as the honest broker who helps find the deal.

Dan Oldfield is the lead negotiator for the Canadian Media Guild, a former journalist, and a longtime hockey fan.