The news this week that federal mediators had been called upon by the NHL and NHLPA to interject themselves into the negotiations was met with a resounding eyebrow raise from the hockey community. Many felt this was a move that was long overdue, but it was accepted that we shouldn't be getting our jerseys out of storage just yet.
The owners and players have been down this path before. In 2004-05, mediators were brought in to the mix but were unable to get both sides to compromise on a deal and the season was subsequently lost. However, the timing of their involvement was much different, as they were brought in mere days before the season was cancelled, a point which is still a few months away this time around.
So why are people not believing that mediation will make a difference? First, it's important to remember that mediation is non-binding, so any party can up and walk away at any point in the process and has no obligation to return to the table. Using a purely hypothetical example, say one side was making offers that contained nothing but concessions from the other side, and the other side had agreed to some of those concessions but wanted the first side to make some of their own. A mediator is likely to take both sides and find some common middle ground, and if the first side (we'll call them the Downers) felt that they had to, you know, actually give up something, they might be inclined to flip the table over and walk out in a huff.
Therein lies another issue. If one side feels that they are making all the sacrifices when any person over the age of 6 can tell they're not, they'd be unlikely to want to discuss things with a mediator for long, because any decent mediator is going to see that and immediately push for that side to give something up. Once a mediator takes sides, it can get ugly if one group feels they are being picked on.
Consider the men at the head of their respective organizations. Given the type A personalities of Gary Bettman and Don Fehr, it's hard to imagine that either of them would accept a third party coming in and taking over the negotiations, even if it meant that one of them was getting more of what they want. These are men who are driven to win, and both have shown that they are willing to make huge sacrifices in order to get the best possible deal for the people they represent. I find it hard to believe that either of them would meekly accept what a mediator would suggest in terms of a compromise.
Because if you think about it, the mediator isn't being called in to resolve differences on minor issues. The CBA is a gigantic legal contract that governs a multi-billion dollar industry. I'd be willing to bet an NHLer's average salary that the majority of the new deal is in place. It's the big issues that remain, things like contract rights, revenue sharing and the "Make Whole" provision. Depending on who you believe, the NHL and PA are either $182M or $1B apart, but this isn't like 2004-05 when the salary cap was going to be instituted, whether the players liked it or not.
In the face of all this, why should anyone be optimistic that this development will be different than any of the others that have transpired prior to this?
First and foremost, a mediator brings the two sides back to the table, even if it's for a short time. The actual face-to-face time between the NHL and PA has been minimal, so anything that gets them meeting and discussing the issues is a good thing. There's a chance that the mediators could be around for a couple of days and then dismissed, but there's always the possibility that they can get the owners and players headed down a path to compromise and a new deal.
The appearance of a mediator is a sign that the NHL and PA are tired of the same old "make an offer and have it rejected before box lunches are served" nonsense that has gone on since negotiations started. Bill Daly said "nothing ventured, nothing gained", and even if that was an empty statement designed to curry a little PR favor, it's indicative of the NHL allowing a third party to come in and at least get some conversation started.
Because that's the ultimate point here. If we know what the main issues are, then so do they, and it's simply a matter of finding the right deal that benefits both sides to approximately the same degree. That deal exists somewhere, but until both sides agree to give up something that they want, they won't get there. The basis for any large deal that has ever been struck between 2 parties has always involved both groups walking away feeling like they gave something up they didn't want to. That should happen here, but it's not as if the owners and players are working towards different end games. Both want hockey back.
Do I believe that a deal is going to be struck in the next couple of days? Of course not. But federal mediators being involved in the negotiations is not a bad thing, certainly not in late November when a sizable portion of the schedule can be salvaged and we can have a season. Whether either side takes advantage of the potential gift that's been given to them remains to be seen.