Oldfield: NHL, players should cease PR battle

Rather than making public offers designed to sway public opinion, the NHL and the players' association ought to declare a media blackout and focus on the hard work of getting a deal done, writes Canadian Media Guild negotiator Dan Oldfield.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman took the unusal tactic of taking the league's proposal public. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Let me say right off the bat that I don’t believe there is any such thing as a popular work stoppage. Be it airlines, post offices or hockey leagues, the affected public blames both parties, and restoring the lost services is all they care about. Winning the public relations battle and losing the collective agreement war is a stupid strategy.

With the public release of the full text of its latest offer to the players’ union, the NHL may have made it harder to get a deal done. The quick and public response from the union is not surprising or encouraging.

One has to wonder with whom the league believes it is bargaining. Several recent stories may give us some insight. It was reported the league hired a high-priced Republican strategist, Frank Luntz, to assess how they were doing in the PR battle. He concluded NHL owners are clearly being seen as the villains in this standoff and are losing that battle to the players.

So on that basis, the owners’ 50-50 offer is a clever move in an attempt to change that perception. It is where the league planned to go all along, as it is similar (in broad terms) to the deals in the NBA and NFL.

After all, can outsiders disagree with an equal share? What could be fairer? The added benefit for the league is that it constitutes a direct appeal not just to the public, but to the NHLPA membership. The hope is that it will play a role in undermining the union’s leadership. But will it work?

The devil, of course, is in the details. The complexity of the offer will leave many regular folks scratching their heads. But no matter how it’s packaged, the offer means the players will get less tomorrow than they do today — even with the so-called "Make Whole" provisions.

The move also risks angering bargainers on the players’ side. Their lead negotiator has already come out to slam it. And going public as the league has done may result in a very public counter-offer — creating yet a new PR squabble. The league may have improved its image in the public's eye, but in doing so, failed to get an agreement — which should be the goal.

In the real world, where more than 97 per cent of collective bargaining results in a deal without a work stoppage, this is not how it gets done. I recall a round of bargaining where the employer actually mailed out not one but two so-called final offers to the membership of my union. It did put pressure on the bargaining committee, but the wrong kind.

It resulted in union leadership spending more time explaining why the offer was lousy rather than sitting with the employer to find agreement. It may have seemed brilliant to the employer at the time, but there is no doubt it significantly prolonged the process and made getting the deal harder.

As outsiders, we can’t really know whether this latest offer is a good thing or a bad.  At least the league has put something on the table, which is always a good way to get talks going. But if, as has been suggested, it is tantamount to a final, take-it-or-leave-it offer, it probably means the season will be lost.

But you can’t put smoke back in the bottle. Badly done or not, this is an opportunity which should not be missed. Now is the time for the NHL and the players’ union to put the hard effort into resolving this dispute. The smartest move now for both the league and the players is to declare a media blackout.

Yes, this will annoy my colleagues in the media, but it isn’t their negotiation.

Then after the NHLPA has tabled its response to the offer, the parties should commit to meeting every day with an October 25th deadline. Having a solid deadline with the carrot being a complete season is the best chance to get the deal done.

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