Oldfield: What the NHL can learn from The Art of War

In The Art of War, ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu warns, "Never surround the village." In other words, give your opponent an honourable way out of fighting. Gary Bettman and the NHL owners apparently missed that chapter, writes labour expert Dan Oldfield.
Commissioner Gary Bettman, front, and his team have yet to offer the players an honourable way out. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

There’s a common misconception about collective bargaining that when people aren’t talking there is no progress.

That’s not necessarily the case. But the kind of progress they make may not be the kind anyone wants.

The NHL and the NHLPA have arrived at the not-too-uncommon stage of a work stoppage where they are waiting to see if time without income or product will soften the other side up. To be sure, both parties are hurting, but they will downplay the impact (or any internal divisions) for obvious reasons.

While this is not unusual, it is also not without its risks. It is always much easier to start a lockout or a strike than to stop one. People dig in and egos come more into play.

Meantime, the product itself is increasingly in jeopardy. There is plenty of competition for sports and entertainment dollars, and while the 2004-05 lockout brought no negative impact on the NHL’s future bottom line, there is no guarantee of a similar outcome this time. The NHL is getting a reputation for cancelled games, leaving fans, broadcasters and sponsors with a bad taste. It is being seen as part of a pattern, and stakeholders are and will be exploring their options.

And why wouldn’t they? In the last 20 years, baseball has lost 938 games to labour disputes. For basketball, it's 504. The NFL hasn't lost any. The NHL has now cancelled 2,042. And counting.

Both parties are taking stock, keeping an eye on their stakeholders, and envisioning ways to get out of their current situation. It will not be easy.

The biggest single problem? The players simply cannot accept the owners’ offer.

To do so this time would ultimately mean the end of the NHLPA. To accept the offer would clearly demonstrate that in the future — and forever — the owners need simply to threaten to lock the doors to get the deal they want.

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu warns, "Never surround the village." What that means is that you must give your opponent an option other than fighting. In other words, an honourable way out.

Unfortunately, Gary Bettman and the owners missed that chapter.

Getting the players back to the table while maintaining the momentum towards a 50-50 revenue split will mean that someone has to come up with a way of addressing the core issue of honouring existing player contracts. It won’t be done with other players’ money.

In a perverse way, the NHL and the NHLPA both view time as an ally. Perhaps the other side may soften up if they hold out long enough. And that may be fine in the short term.

But it's a risky strategy that gets even riskier the longer it goes on. It means both sides are digging in ever more deeply. It means they're not focusing on solutions, but on their own perception of each other's weaknesses. It means they're expecting the other to fold first.

But, like Sun Tzu's villagers, warriors given no option other than fighting will continue to fight.

To wave the white flag is unthinkable.

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