Oldfield: Roadmap for an NHL labour deal

Whether the NHL and NHLPA realize it or not, the framework for a deal is already on the table, writes labour negotiator Dan Oldfield. Here's how to end the lockout in four days.
The NHL's labour talks appear to be fraying, but the pieces could be in place for a quick deal. (Mark Humphrey/Associated Press)

We learned this week that NHL owners and general managers have been in direct contact with some of their locked-out players, and talking up the league's proposal.

On the surface it sounds innocent enough. But it’s a minor-league move in a big-league negotiation.

A respected federal conciliator once told me, "Any time management thinks it knows the membership better than the union, it’s wrong."

He has been proven correct on numerous occasions. Attempts to bargain around the bargaining table virtually never work, give the impression of desperation, and serve only to alienate the very people you need to get the collective agreement.

It’s one thing to think you’re the smartest person in the room, and another to think everyone else is an idiot.

You’d think, seven weeks into a lockout, everyone involved would realize the game-playing is over. Would it not be better to cut the deal sooner than later?

Yes, there is such a thing as hard bargaining. Usually there’s a reason for it, such as the company is going broke, or technology has radically changed, or customers are moving away.

But in this case, the NHL has failed to make a convincing case as to why it needs a sudden and radical change to the financial structure. Sure, the NBA and the NFL have moved to versions of the 50-50 revenue-split model, but that in itself is not much of a justification.

The NHL has averaged a 7.2 per cent annual return on investment since the last lockout. In 2005 the owners could make a legitimate argument for significant changes. This time, well, not so much.

So it's hard to see any compelling reason for this to continue. Other than stubbornness.

That will be overcome, but the question is when.

Maybe this week? Maybe next? Or in a month?

After that, the deal should come together fairly quickly — in a matter of days. I see it happening like this:

Day 1

Steve Fehr and Bill Daly come to the realization that neither the league's nor the player's latest proposals will resolve the outstanding issues, but agree that a combination of the offers can get it done. They will initially agree to meet in person, off the record, and not for publication.

Days 2 & 3

Meaningful progress will have been made. The broad framework will result in more individuals being brought to the table. Later that day (and/or on Day 3) the larger group will agree to a deal that sees the players’ share of revenue reduced to 50 per cent. Left to be determined is the pace of that reduction, but it will be based on rate of revenue increases (say, 5 per cent and 7.2 per cent). They will also need a process to determine what to do with existing long-term contracts. They will agree to a term limit on future contracts (five to seven years) and that annual salary-cap hits can no longer be based on the average salary over the length of the deal, but will now be based on in-year actual salaries. The players will agree to modest changes in entry-level contracts and restricted and unrestricted free agency.

Day 4

They will wrap up the outstanding economic and non-economic issues and announce a tentative agreement with an immediate ratification and training camps to open the following day, with the season opener to start a week later.


Both sides need to recognize the deal (a 50-50 split, with a timetable for getting there) is already on the table.

They also need to acknowledge that, the longer the lockout goes on, the more they both suffer. Not to mention risking more alienation from fans and businesses that actually provide the profit and salaries they both enjoy.

So no more avoidance, no more posturing, no more playing to the crowd. Just pick up what's on the table and move on.

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