Mediators Quit – NHL Proposes That the Players and Owners Meet Without Fehr and Bettman

The federal mediators gave up trying to help the NHL and NHLPA after only about 12 hours of talking over two days last week. They are at an impasse in their collective bargaining negotiations. It says here that the mediation attempt was merely part of the larger process. Should negotiations progress to the point of union decertification, both sides will need to point to the fact that they submitted to good faith bargaining through mediation. However, out of the failure of mediation has come a new idea.

So far, the negotiations between the two sides have not gone well no matter how they’ve structured the groups. Small and even one-on-one meetings between NHL and NHLPA negotiating principals, Bettman, Daly, Fehr and Fehr have done little. Large meetings that included both owners and players have also failed to progress negotiations. One thing is clear; nothing has worked to bring these two sides together so far. But there has always been a constant in these meetings. The heads of negotiating have always been present. Today, the owners proposed that the players meet with them without any of the four principal negotiators.

This could help negotiations for a couple of reasons. First is that the owners are reputed to dislike, even hate Donald Fehr, head of the NHLPA even more than they hated former NHLPA boss Bob Goodenow. We know the goal of the previous lockout wasn’t just to win the negotiation over the players and install a salary cap. The owners and Gary Bettman wanted to ensure that Goodenow could no longer stay as NHLPA head for future CBA negotiations. The owners and Bettman succeeded on all fronts in a landslide victory, or so they thought. Now, Donald Fehr is as hated, but has prepared his players for the negotiation even better than Goodenow did as fewer cracks are showing among the players than under Goodenow. Getting Fehr out of the room could be a positive move because he has become a proverbial roadblock for many of the owners. Any personal vendettas could be temporarily put aside so the owners could communicate directly with the players without fear of their words or intentions being twisted.

Second, by and large, the NHL players dislike Gary Bettman. Defenseman Ian White recently insulted Bettman and the job he’s done most recently, calling him an ‘idiot’. The players, rightly or wrongly blame Bettman for many of the game’s ills citing overexpansion into poor hockey markets and the numerous work-stoppages over his tenure and his main failings. By removing Bettman from the meeting room, perhaps the players will be able to speak freely to the owners to voice their concerns while at the same time be able to listen to the owners concerns as individual business people as opposed to a vilified deity.

Last, perhaps by removing the lead negotiators, a moderate player leader and moderate owner can help bridge the gap between the two parties with a common sense approach. The late Harley Hotchkiss, former owner of the Calgary Flames was one such owner. Hotchkiss had great respect among the players enabling an element of trust to enter the discussions between the two parties. From a player perspective, several in the past have stepped out of the ranks in an attempt to move the negotiations forward. Both Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux stepped in as former players in an attempt to end the 2004-05 lockout. Trevor Linden inevitably stepped in as president of the NHLPA to help end the ’05 lockout.