Oldfield: Still hope for NHL labour deal

The latest news on the NHL labour front is, well, not good. But don't give up on the 2012-13 season just yet, writes Canadian Media Guild negotiator Dan Oldfield, who explains why and how a deal can get done.
Hockey fans may be increasingly disillusioned by the NHL lockout, but there’s still reason to believe the league and players can find common ground. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

With the words "This is the best we could do," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s rejection of the players’ counter-proposals on Thursday seems for some to be a eulogy for the 2012-13 season.

Memo to hockey fans everywhere — don’t jump! Rest assured, no one on either side of the table believes this is the end. In bargaining, the time when all seems lost is often the time just before the deal gets done.

Maybe my habit of optimism is getting the best of me, but I think if the parties meet again for more than an hour in the next few days, a deal can get done before October 25.

This entire exercise is about finding agreement rather than focusing on disagreement. A deal is possible if we begin where agreement likely already exists. Whether the league and its players realize it or not, they have a number of common interests.

For example:

  • It’s better to play than not to play
  • There’s enough money in the pot for everyone
  • Both parties need a deal and have it within their power to make one
  • Bad press, alienated fan and frustrated advertisers are all bad for business
  • Both sides need fairness in any resolution

This week has brought some interesting developments. The league moved to a 50-50 split of revenues, as did the players in all three of their proposals on Thursday. What’s left to be determined is how it is accomplished. Will they actually blow up an entire season and the $3-billlion-plus revenue stream that awaits them for the sake of an issue of timing? I doubt it.

Most of the ideas about how to get this deal done have already been spoken. To be clear, this is not the time to start redefining terminology and conditions. The 2005 agreement cost an entire season, was hard fought and left many scars. It should serve as the infrastructure for any new agreement. If there are issues of "clarification" around what constitutes hockey-related revenues (HRR) they can be sorted out in arbitration if necessary. Any resolution will have to address the core issues of time and money.

A few key moves need to be made:

  • 1. The league has been around since 1917-18 and will be around for many years to come. Any move to significantly change the financial structure will mean both parties have to play the long game. Any hard shift will continue to stifle agreement. The players have agreed to a more equal sharing of revenue. The NHL needs to show patience over the life of the new deal. It also needs to abandon its demand for immediate salary rollbacks. Players have negotiated their deals in good faith and those deals should be honoured.
  • 2. The NHLPA should now accept the league’s proposed changes in revenue sharing, entry-level contracts and the one-year delay of free-agent eligibility. One year one way or the other cannot be a deal breaker.
  • 3.  Both parties need to agree to an agreement that is long enough to have a mutually beneficial resolution. While the league is anxious to adjust the financial structure quickly, time can be used as a friend. The term of the deal should be designed to give the league the stability to re-establish credibility with fans and sponsors while at the same time breaking the current pattern of disputes. The term should also be long enough that there is a gradual reduction in the players’ share of revenues without being disruptive.
  • 4.  Both parties should agree to processes that allow them to deal with issues during the life of the agreement. This includes positive initiatives that grow relationships between owners and players based on mutual respect.
  • 5. The league and the players worked very well together to improve the product during the last work stoppage. A standing joint committee should be created with the sole mandate of improving the on-ice product.

By continuing to talk, even when things aren’t going well, the parties have increased their knowledge of each other’s core interests. They have also found areas of agreement on matters that ultimately need to be part of the deal.

They’ve proven they can agree. Now it’s time to push the whole deal across the finish line.

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