The NHL and NHL Players' Association are hoping some objective voices can help bring an end to their labour dispute.
With negotiations stalled on a new collective bargaining agreement, the sides have agreed to allow U.S. federal mediators into the process — something they tried without success on a couple of occasions prior to the cancellation of the 2004-05 season.
"While we have no particular level of expectation going into this process, we welcome a new approach in trying to reach a resolution of the ongoing labour dispute at the earliest possible date," deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Monday.
Added NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr: "We look forward to their involvement as we continue working to reach an equitable agreement for both the players and the owners."
The mediation will be non-binding, meaning the sides will not be forced to go along with suggestions or recommendations made by Scot L. Beckenbaugh and John Sweeney. Those mediators are scheduled to meet separately with the league and union on Wednesday.
Beckenbaugh was acting director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service during the NHL's last lockout and sat in on sessions at that time. One of those occurred just three days before commissioner Gary Bettman cancelled the entire season in February 2005.
The latest round of negotiations has seemed troubled from the start. The NHL and NHLPA haven't met since last week, when the union tabled a proposal that Bettman quickly labelled as one that left the sides "far apart."
They've managed to reach some common ground with both proposing a 50-50 split of revenues throughout the agreement, but are divided on the amount of additional payments the league will make to help ease the transition. The NHL has offered $211 million US while the NHLPA asked for $393 million.
There are also a variety of rules relating to player contracts that still need to be sorted out.
Further complicating matters is the fact both sides have said their best proposal is already on the table. "Any expectation that the offer is going to get better as time goes on is not realistic," Bettman said last week.
Mediation has been used in virtually every labour dispute involving pro sports leagues in recent years.
George Cohen, the director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, has worked with the players' associations for Major League Baseball and the NBA, and was also an adviser to the NHLPA before joining the FMCS three years ago.
Cohen mediated during the 2010 negotiations in Major League Soccer and 2011 talks in the NFL and NBA, along with this year's dispute between the NFL and its on-field officials.
In a statement, he said his organization would not comment on the schedule or status of the NHL negotiations "until further notice."
"I have had separate, informal discussions with the key representatives of the National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Players' Association during the course of their negotiations for a successor collective bargaining agreement," said Cohen. "At the invitation of the FMCS, and with the agreement of both parties, the ongoing negotiations will now be conducted under our auspices."
The NHL lockout is now in its 11th week and has forced the league to cancel 422 regular-season games, plus the Jan. 1 Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium and Jan. 27 all-star game in Columbus.
Bettman has said the league is losing as much as $20 million per day during the lockout.
Negotiator removed from process
The mediation process will happen without one of the negotiators originally assigned to the case.
Not long after Cohen announced the league and players' association had agreed to mediation, he released a statement saying one of the planned participants, Guy Serota, would be removed from the process.
"It has been called to my attention that there are issues involving an allegedly hacked Twitter account associated with Commissioner Guy Serota, one of the mediators I assigned," Cohen said. "Accordingly, in order to immediately dispel any cloud on the mediation process, and without regard to the merits of the allegations, I have determined to take immediate action, namely to remove Commissioner Serota from this assignment."
While Serota claimed his account had been compromised, it contained derogatory Twitter posts extending back several weeks.