Oldfield: Time for NHL, players to get real

With the threat of another lost season intensifying, labour expert Dan Oldfield says the NHL and its players need to realize they're sitting on a gold mine and that a deal can be done.
Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby, left, listens as union head Don Fehr addresses reporters Thursday night after another breakdown in negotations with the NHL. (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

We are now probably just two short steps away from a lost NHL season. There's little doubt the next announcement from the league will be about the cancellation of more games, perhaps into January.

The next one after that will be "Sorry, folks. That’s all."

It’s hard to believe that two parties sitting on a gold mine are wasting their time scratching through the tailings pile.

Other than the fact there is an expired collective agreement in need of renewal, there is nothing typical about these negotiations between the NHL and its Players’ Association. In the coming years, for labour geeks like me, this will make a fascinating case study about how not to negotiate a deal.

The angry drum beats and declarations of shock and disappointment are already flying, along with finger pointing. Commissioner Gary Bettman is going scorched earth, announcing all offers are off the table. Bill Daly claims player contract lengths are "the hill we are going to die on."

Is he kidding? Really? More than $3 billion in revenue is being chucked over whether players have contracts that run more than five years?

In the meantime, union head Don Fehr seems genuinely surprised the parties aren’t as close as he thought they were. Perhaps excluding Fehr and Bettman from the meetings for a couple of days wasn’t such a good idea after all.

Here we have an enterprise that has seen record increases in revenues through some of the toughest economic times ever. We mere mortals are unable to contemplate "billions" of dollars. That’s a lot of zeros in anyone’s language and we’re getting a lot of zeros from the bargaining table. Not many parties have had the opportunities these guys have had. Sadly, they’ve been regularly and consistently squandered.

So, where do we go from here?

There will be no knight on a white charger arriving to get these folks on the same page. Sure, the players could decertify, or their union could issue a "disclaimer of interest." The league could challenge it all before the labour board or in the courts. Or it could take anti-trust lawsuits through months and/or years of litigation. The league could suspend operations until such time as "the union comes to its senses." Again, more game-playing, more avoiding the inevitable.

These threats by the league of pulling its offers off the table, which in bargaining reality is much like putting smoke back into the bottle, are nonsense. Not only that, you don’t get a deal by running in the opposite direction. By now the NHL and the players know where the deal is. For whatever reason they are going to continue to lock horns. Perhaps it’s pride, a keen sense of fair play or even short-sightedness.

So, back to the question — where from here?

I, sadly, have been in similar situations, and as much as I hoped it would all just go away, that someone else would solve it, or that time and time alone would provide the answers, I was forced to come to the conclusion that any real or lasting solution was up to me.

The only things I had to decide were how much harder I wanted to make it, and how much more damage needed to be done before I accepted responsibility.

As I said, there has been nothing typical about these negotiations, so predicting the next move or how these guys will get themselves out of it is a mug’s game. Perhaps the depth of their pockets is a factor the rest of us can’t appreciate.

The next move has already been announced by Gary Bettman: "Step back and take a deep breath." Unfortunately, there is no obvious plan after that. Whatever the method, it is time to get real. It is time for both parties to realize how far they have come and how close they are to the finish line.

A war of attrition and a battle of wills might satisfy these combatants, but it’s becoming pretty obvious the product can’t take much more abuse.

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