Oldfield: NHL labour stand-off needs a mediator

Like grizzled gunslingers in the Old West, neither side is budging in the NHL's labour battle. What they need, writes Canadian Media Guild negotiator Dan Oldfield, is a neutral sheriff to step in and help the sides hash out their differences.
Neither NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, left, nor players' head Donald Fehr appears ready to blink anytime soon in their labour showdown. (Getty Images)

It's high noon in Shinnytown. The tumbleweeds are blowing under the hitching posts and guns are being drawn. It's time for action.

It should be obvious now, after Thursday's announcement of the cancellation of regular-season games, to even the optimists that the NHL and the NHLPA will be unable to resolve their dispute. Not soon, and not for a very long time.

Continuing to ask for something you simply are not going to get will not break the logjam.

The owners say they are waiting for the players to table a proposal in order to get things moving. The players are clearly telling the owners they have no intention of making another proposal, and the league will have to work on their last offer.

It is a stand-off. And like most stand-offs, the parties don't have the capacity to end it by peaceful and productive means.

So back to the dusty street of the Old West with the gun slingers at opposite ends, guns drawn and aimed. This is where the NHL and the NHLPA find themselves, and no amount of appeal to the public, no argument about who is right or wrong, will end it. There are only a couple of possible outcomes: one or both get shot, or someone intervenes to change the outcome. Any gunfire would kill the season and/or seriously wound the product.

I say call in the Sheriff.

There are a number of highly skilled mediators in North America — some who have actually brokered peace between feuding nations. The advantage of bringing in a neutral is that such a person can ask for something from each of the parties that they can't seem to ask for or get from each other. I've negotiated dozens of labour agreements. And in the most challenging cases, when both sides were firmly entrenched and would not budge, that's what we had to do. There really is no other choice.

A mediator should be able to get the sides to see that on the money side, it's actually pretty straightforward. They are carving up a growing pie. Compare that to a lot of labour negotiations these days, where the very future of the industry is in doubt. In this case, both sides understand the economics of the industry, they have a structure in which they have historically worked, and both — notwithstanding their current predicament — have important shared interests. There is significant motivation, for both sides, to reach a deal.  A skilled mediator, respected by both parties, has a real chance of helping them find it.

But time is of the essence. The longer this goes, the more pain inflicted, the more public comments, the harder it all becomes. Because right now the biggest problem the NHL and the NHLPA have is not just carving the pie: it's about saving face. It is about perceptions of fairness and respect. It is about ego and toughness.

That's a problem they can't solve when the guns are drawn and they're trying to stare each other down. If the only thing the NHL and the Players' Association can agree upon is to get someone to help, that will be a big step. And it's a step they have to make now, because waiting will only make things worse.

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