Can mediation work this time around?

November, 27, 2012
11/27/12
11:02
AM ET


Can mediation work this time around?

It certainly didn’t in early February 2005 when the NHL and NHL Players’ Association sat down with mediators in an experiment that went absolutely nowhere, as the season was canceled a few days later.

Of course, there’s a reason mediation had no chance back then. The NHLPA at that time still had not moved off its no-cap stance, so the mediators had zero wiggle room to play with whatsoever.

"It went nowhere," one source with knowledge of the February 2005 mediation attempt told ESPN.com.

That’s what makes this week’s mediation session different. It doesn’t mean it’s going to achieve any more success than seven years ago, but at the very least there’s more potential for that to happen. At least on paper.

What separates the two sides is $182 million in make-whole money, which is actually less because I believe the NHLPA intended with last week’s offer that asked for $393 million in make whole to have the league meet them halfway from the $211 million the NHL offered.

And certainly there is significant division on player contracting rights, with the league still asking for too many changes, more than the players will ever accept.

Still, that’s less of a gap for mediators to work with than seven years ago when the cap/no-cap stances from either side polarized the negotiation and made it futile for mediation.

The NHLPA, both privately and publicly, has long seen the merits of mediation in this lockout. My sense is that the union has always believed that once a neutral third party examined the offers on the table, they would see that the players are doing all the backing up in this negotiation. Perhaps. But the neutral third party might also point to NBA and NFL players also doing all the backing up in last year’s respective labor deals and say to the NHLPA, "What’s your point?"

Regardless of how it works out, the NHLPA believes it’s worth a shot. Why? Because mediation is usually like "shuttle diplomacy," one industry source tells ESPN.com.

"Perhaps it can help focus the parties on the differences, perhaps things can be said to the mediator that cannot be said directly across the table."

And certainly, mediators should give both sides an honest reality check of each other’s positions.

But in the end, no matter what mediators say or try, only the true willingness of both sides to finally compromise for the final stretch will allow a true breakthrough.

It’s non-binding mediation, nobody is going to force the NHL to back off on its player contracting rights demands, or the NHLPA in coming down on its make-whole number.

That has to come from each side, once and for all.

In other words, mediation has a chance only if both parties are open to the process.

On that, I’m not fully convinced.

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