Beyond the Ice: Bring in the mediators

After another offer from the players failed to create any traction in negotiations, the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association both agreed to allow federal mediators to intervene in hopes of reaching a new collective bargaining agreement.

The players’ latest proposal sought to close the gap between the owners and players in the amount of money that would be needed to reach a “make whole” provision in the new deal. With this provision, players would receive the full value of their signed deals over an extended time frame, saving owners money in the short term to reach a new deal.

The players’ latest proposal would have closed that gap to about $182 million. The owners rejected that proposal, insisting on providing $211 million for the provision over five years and not the $393 million the players sought.

The players’ proposal asked that each team only pay an additional $1.2 million per year for five years. That agreement probably would have put the NHL back in action on Dec. 1. Instead the league cancelled its games through Dec. 14, as well as its All-Star weekend in Columbus, Ohio. Meanwhile, the league reportedly continues to lose $18 to $20 million per day, according to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Federal mediators will try to help the two sides find common ground, but this is not an arbitration hearing, which would produce a legally-binding ruling that the two sides would have to obey – something neither side is willing to risk. Instead, the mediators will serve as objective guides with no power to force agreement.

“While we have no particular level of expectation going into this process, we welcome a new approach in trying to reach a resolution of the ongoing labor dispute at the earliest possible date,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told reporters.

For some historical perspective, federal mediators tried to bridge the gap between the two sides in 2005. That didn’t end well: The season was cancelled just three days later, as Canadian Press reporter Chris Johnston noted.

The mediation process has already experienced a hiccup: Mediator Guy Serota was removed from the case after hundreds of viewers read his Twitter page filled with ill-advised comments. The content of the account was quickly removed. Serota issued an apology, claiming his account was hacked and stating that an imposter created the new account. Neither claim was given much credence, but still, no part of these labor negotiations has been cut-and-dry.

Whether or not mediation produces an agreement to save the season – which is more imperiled each passing day – the option has postponed discussions of union decertification, a legal tactic that would dissolve the union as a bargaining power and send the players into courts individually to file antitrust lawsuits against the league.

Such an action would certainly end any chance of the players stepping on ice this year and could easily put next season at risk, too. This could be the final option for the players if mediation doesn’t produce an agreement – the so-called “nuclear option.” Luckily for hockey fans, no one solves gridlock like the federal government.