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Mediation raises hope for NHL

Important step, but expert warns it's not a done deal at all

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Some have dubbed it a possible breakthrough. Others warn it is hardly a magic wand that will simply make the National Hockey League lockout vanish.

But say this about the NHL and the NHL Players' Association agreeing Monday to mediation in their ongoing labour dispute: It might not be the move that ultimately saves the season, but it sure as heck can't hurt getting some outside eyes and ears involved in the process.

The U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service announced Monday a pair of mediators will now be involved in negotiations between the NHL and the NHLPA in an effort to bridge the gap between the two sides.

"I think both sides are prepared to try a new approach," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told the Washington Times. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."

Added NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr in a statement: "We look forward to their involvement as we continue working to reach an equitable agreement for both the players and the owners."

But while the game's followers have long become numb to any news -- be it positive or negative -- in a dispute that has reached its third month, there is nonetheless significance in the step towards mediation.

"The fact they've agreed to it says two things," began Sean MacDonald, an instructor at the University of Manitoba's Asper School of Business. "No. 1, they are close enough that a mediator would matter. The second thing is they've shown a willingness to go into mediation.

"We'll see. A few days from now, it could be shown that this optimism is badly, badly misplaced. But I see this as a positive. Maybe it's not a critical step, but it's an important one."

The two sides haven't met since last Wednesday, when the NHLPA tabled a proposal that commissioner Gary Bettman insisted still left the league and union "far apart." Fehr countered by saying the two sides are about $182 million apart over the course of a possible five-year deal.

Last Friday, the league cancelled games through to Dec. 15, bringing the total to 422 and including the Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, Mich., slated for Jan. 1. Also spiked were the NHL All-Star Weekend festivities in Columbus in late January.

The move towards mediation might also represent something else -- pressures from within the NHL and the NHLPA to get a deal done now to not only save the season, but salvage the NHL brand and stop the financial bleeding both sides are experiencing. Last week, Bettman suggested the business is losing roughly $18 million to $20 million a day.

All that said, any recommendation by the mediation team is hardly binding, and this could very well be an effort in futility if the two sides stand firm.

"The reality is mediation fails a lot," MacDonald explained. "It does. There's still a lot of hostilities. It comes down to what we in negotiations would call 'hidden table.' That means, what's the type of pressure that Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr are having from their own people, and is it coming from the hawks or the doves? That could make all of this irrelevant.

"But what seemed to change things was last week when the NHLPA dropped this idea of an accelerated percentage of revenue growth and just dealt with hockey-related revenue. Now, for once they're talking the same language, and even though they've got all these contracting issues, there might -- MIGHT -- be something there that a mediator could work with.

"The other thing is (a mediator) might lower the temperature in the room, which sounds like it has been getting a bit hot at times.

"I see some hope, the most significant hope, since this started."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

What mediation means

 

Sean MacDonald of the Asper School of Business explains the three levels of third-party resolution:

1. Conciliator: "That's when the two parties can't stand the sight of each other and so they get a conciliator to provide a sanitized and friendlier version of the positions. They don't come up with any new ideas; the conciliator is just a go-between sending messages."

2. Arbitrator: "This is at the other end where an arbitrator makes decisions."

3. Mediator: "The middle ground. A mediator plays the role of exchanging messages between the parties. But more than anything else, a mediator's job is to suggest new ideas to bridge the differences between the two parties."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 27, 2012 D2

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