DeCock: NHL might need Army to settle lockout

ldecock@newsobserver.comNovember 29, 2012 

Federal mediators on Wednesday tried to do what common sense, so far, has not: Bring the NHL and the NHL Players Association together in time to save the hockey season.

Before anyone gets too optimistic, remember that the two sides met with mediators during the last lockout, on Feb. 13, 2005. Three days later, the rest of the season was canceled.

The only Federal agency that might be able to get some traction is the Army. The two sides are so entrenched in their positions, heavy artillery might not even be able to dislodge them, but it might have the best shot.

Forget about revenue splits, “make whole,” contract restrictions, decertification or any of the jargon that’s been flying around for months now. This entire dispute comes down to two opposing principles.

The owners – the hard-liners backing commissioner Gary Bettman – appear dedicated to imposing their will on the union. The owners don’t want to negotiate. They only want to dictate.

The players, having crumbled eight years ago, are dedicated to standing firm. They’re willing to negotiate and compromise, but they won’t capitulate.

And that’s why, even though the last exchange of proposals left the two sides squabbling over pocket change relative to the league’s pre-lockout revenue, not even Federal mediators can broker a peace.

This won’t be settled by one side bending. It will only be settled by one side breaking.

So whether it’s the big-market owners who are hemorrhaging money pushing Bettman toward a deal or the players doing an end run behind Donald Fehr’s back as they did eight years ago to Bob Goodenow, someone’s going to have to implode before the NHL gets back on the ice, barring a sudden and unexpected outbreak of sanity.

There is one back door to a settlement, however. Both the NFL and NBA unions, when faced with intransigence, followed differing paths to decertification, which eliminates the union as a bargaining partner and opens the door to class-action antitrust lawsuits.

(The basic business between a league and its players – free agency, contract terms, drafts – is all illegal outside the framework of collective bargaining with a union.)

An actual decertified world would be a train wreck, but it’s very unlikely it would come to that. As much as they might complain, pro sports leagues need unions to maintain order. Decertification is a nuclear weapon: The mere threat of it is a negotiating tool.

Two weeks after the National Basketball Players Association decertified – technically, it was a “disclaimer of interest,” where the union dissolves itself as opposed to the players voting to dissolve it, but the result is the same – and filed a mess of antitrust lawsuits, labor peace arrived and the Christmas Day basketball games were saved.

It’s too late to save the Winter Classic, but if the NHLPA goes that route, it may be the only chance left at saving the season.

Either that, or send in the Army.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, Twitter: @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947

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