It’s true, skeptics wildly outnumber optimists in the daily patter around the NHL’s collective bargaining mess.
So, when news broke of Friday’s planned bargaining session to discuss lesser CBA items, eyes rolled, sarcasm ruled the Twitterverse yet again and more NHL players booked flights to Europe.
Call me, someone said, when they start jumping on flights back home.
At the moment, the flow of hockey traffic between Canada and the European leagues is a one-way street. Erik Karlsson, the beloved defenceman of the Ottawa Senators, was the latest to book a ticket to Finland, to join Jokerit of the Finnish Elite League.
In the event of a happy resolution to the NHL lockout, Karlsson’s Jokerit contract is “month to month,” which pretty much describes the state of hockey fans in this country. September hockey has been erased. Hopes are fading for the regular season dates of October. November, and all that it entails – including the possible cancellation of the New Year’s Day Winter Classic — is an oncoming train.
As if the landscape weren’t negative enough, players are chiming in like choir boys with a daily chorus of how this lockout “could easily last an entire season – or more.”
What would it take to get some traction in talks? Is there even the slightest chance Friday’s meeting between the NHL and the NHLPA, on “non-core economic issues” might provide at least some consensus, on any little thing at all? (Eg. The sky is blue. Swiss league uniforms are tacky . . .).
I put the question to a professional mediator, Lynne Villemaire of Roundtable Mediation and Arbitration Services in Ottawa. Villemaire is a University of Ottawa graduate with a background in dispute resolution, including collective bargaining.
“The fact they’re going in Friday with an agenda that is much less contentious . . . something more neutral and probably on subjects that are much easier to discuss and negotiate on is, I think personally, a fantastic strategy,” Villemaire said.
While no one is advised to hold his or her breath on Friday until white smoke rises from a new deal, the big issues should more easily be solved if there is agreement first on smaller items, such as arbitration, player contracts and Olympic participation. For example, if the NHL threw the players a bone on the Olympics, would that not help rebuild trust?
“I think it really depends on what the parties are bringing to the table, and what is most important for them,” said Villemaire. “Some negotiations, the two sides really feel they want to get off their chest the big things first, and that might be how the league has so far gone about it, from what I’ve read.”
In other words, the division of the $3.3 billion pie of revenues.
“That’s what is at their core, what is most important for them,” Villemaire said, of the league and its PA.
“That’s how you can sometimes get stuck. Because you’re putting all your energies into it – and sometimes you get stuck in your beliefs.”
Mediators seek commonality. Villemaire, for example, likes the fact the players and management have co-existed, sometimes rather happily.
“Sometimes we forget about the relationship aspect when it comes to negotiating,” she said. “They need to work together – for as long as hockey is going to be around. So, they can try to get that relationship back to a more positive light . . . to refocus on their common goals, because they do have a lot of common goals, even now.”
Eg. More revenues for all!
“If they can refocus and kind of rebuild that positive relationship, then it could help them see each other as people again.
And not the sworn enemy.
That’s quite a bridge to build. This latest lockout has been pockmarked by Twitter bombs, mostly tossed at commissioner Gary Bettman from PO’d players. Last week, Detroit Red Wings executive VP Jim Devellano set off a fresh firestorm when he suggested players should know their place as “cattle” on the NHL club owners’ “farm.”
Not exactly a textbook mediation lesson in how to get those “cattle” to co-operate at the bargaining table.
Villemaire says these media sideshows “take the focus off trying to work together.
“To be able to resolve this (the NHL and PA) are going to have to move off their personal opinions and get down to the business of getting hockey started again . . . everything else is just background noise, distracting from the main issues.”
Hats off to the NHL and its players if they can actually resolve this mess without help, but a mediator would be a breath of fresh air in the Donald Fehr/Bettman showdown.
“It is hard when you don’t have that third-party, neutral person to help re-focus the conversation in a more positive way,” said Villemaire, who makes conflict resolution her business. “It can help break the cycle of two sides getting stuck in their positions and the conversation going in circles.”
“The mediator has no vested interest in the outcome. For them, personally, it doesn’t affect them.”
Other than the personal satisfaction of helping to end an ugly impasse. For that, the nation of NHL fans would give personal thanks.