By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Nov. 27) – The no-effort aspect of the NHL lockout – exponential as the days and weeks accumulate – is to disdain any form of confidence in a resolution. Elevating one’s hope for a truce between owners and players can be hazardous, especially among those that recall the bitter disappointment of 2004-05, when the entire season went up in smoke.
There is, however, more than a smidgen of promise, according to a league source that has accommodated yours truly over the past several weeks.
“I have to be honest – I didn’t think we’d agree on a mediation process,” admitted the source. “I knew there were attempts by mediators in the U.S. to get involved, as they did with other pro leagues. But, there’s been so much rancor in collective bargaining that I never felt optimistic about third-party involvement. Now that it’s happening, there are possibilities. I wouldn’t underestimate the potential, though it could also amount to nothing.”
The process will begin to unfold on Wednesday at an undisclosed location.
Inherent to the growing skepticism about a labor accord, many observers have been quick to point out that federal mediators had no impact on the 2004-05 NHL stalemate. “But, you have to remember,” offered my source “mediation didn’t become directly involved in that process until the eleventh hour. It entered the picture only days before the commissioner canceled the season – in mid-February of ’05. We’re at a much-earlier point of the current dispute. There is more opportunity to break the deadlock.”
GEORGE H. COHEN (ABOVE) – DIRECTOR OF THE U.S. FEDERAL MEDIATION AND CONCILIATION SERVICE – WILL OVERSEE THIRD-PARTY INVOLVEMENT IN THE NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE LABOR DISPUTE. BEGINNING WEDNESDAY, IT WILL SPECIFICALLY INVOLVE THE AGENCY’S DEPUTY DIRECTOR SCOT BECKENBAUGH AND DIRECTOR OF SERVICES JOHN SWEENEY.
Though time is of the essence – “If there is no resolution before Christmas, there won’t be a season,” claimed my source – an intangible prevails.
“Both sides want to get this thing over with – trust me,” said the source. “These aren’t stupid people. I know that fans and media have discredited Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr but I’m convinced there is a mutual appetite to begin playing hockey once again. The problem in labor unrest is that neither side is anxious to make the first move. That’s just the way it is – and not only in sports. Occasionally, an outside push can get the ball rolling.”
Just more than a week ago, my source claimed the 2012-13 season was in “grave jeopardy.” Why the change of heart? “Simple – there has been progress since then. I’m not here to predict any outcome and there is still a fairly limited margin for the impasse to continue. But, I told you last week that the P-A’s latest proposal – though not the essence of an agreement – is the foundation for both sides to continue negotiating. I don’t believe it’s coincidental that external parties are now getting involved.”
The fact that federal mediators do not have binding authority – a license to independently resolve the matter – is another vital concern. “That would never happen in a situation like this,” said my source. “But, given the urgency and time-constraint involved here, it may not be necessary. The mere specter of third-party influence could initiate a breakthrough. It can allow for both sides to ‘save face’, if you will, and tackle the most important issues.”
When asked for his take on the lockout moving forward, my source reverted to his prior stance. “It’s still up to the players to decide if they want to lose a full season of their careers – in some cases, another full season,” he insisted. “But, mediation could be helpful to both sides.
“There’s more legitimate hope than there was two weeks ago.”
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