Oldfield: Expect NHL mediators to work quickly, discreetly

Labour negotiator Dan Oldfield breaks down the role of mediation in a labour dispute, now that the NHL and players' association have agreed to seek out U.S. federal mediators.
George Cohen, right, and Scot L. Beckenbaugh, deputy director of the FMCS, are seen during the 2011 NFL labour dispute. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

How will mediation work?

Finally. A glimmer of hope. Both sides have agreed to mediation.

So now what? First, a reminder.

There is often confusion between mediation and arbitration.

An arbitrator can issue a decision binding on both parties. But a mediator's role is to help the sides reach common ground. Mediators cannot impose a settlement.

The U.S. Federal Mediation Conciliation Service (FMCS) is a world leader in interest-based negotiations.

In plain English, that means its mediators will attempt to uncover the real needs of the parties — as opposed to the wants — and bring them closer to satisfying those needs. 

Needs, of course, are different than wants. Sure, I want to win the lottery, but I need to pay my bills. And I'm reminded of that every time I check my losing ticket. And I still get by.

Mediators are not miracle workers though. They will only succeed based on the good faith and  willingness of the parties to reach agreement.

You can probably expect at least a day or two where the mediator(s) will meet separately with the parties in order to appreciate what their perspectives are and what is keeping them apart.

In fact, they might never bring the parties into the same room.

Once the mediators have an understanding of the issues, they will attempt to explore different ways of addressing the parties' interests.

In likely what will be an exercise in shuttle diplomacy,  they sometimes play what's called the "What if" game.

They'll ask: What if the league does this, and the players do that? And they will keep drilling down.

By putting options on the table, the mediators are separating the settlement options from the participants.

In other words, it's blameless. Neither side can accuse the other of unacceptable demands. A whole range of potential solutions can be explored without any of them constituting a position of either party.

In the course of collective bargaining, there is no shame in asking for help.

I've done it several times when it appeared the only way to move toward a resolution is to invite an adult into the room. It is much harder to maintain an unreasonable or unhelpful position in the face of a neutral third party.

Normally, the time, place and frequency of meetings are dictated by the mediator, which tends to take some of the control away from the parties.

Expect FMCS to move quickly to determine if it believes a deal is possible.

The FMCS is no stranger to the NHL. It has been asked to intervene before. In the 2005 lockout, it was asked to step in. Belatedly.

Days later, the season was cancelled.

This time, both parties have agreed to outside help much earlier. That's a positive step.

As well, expect the mediators to request a media blackout. If they agree, it may well be that for the first time in this dispute, no news may signify good news.

There's no guarantee here of success. but this is likely the last best chance for the NHL and its players to find resolution and save what's left of the season.

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